With the possibility that the NFL will lower the average salary cap next season, and an already tight budget in Pittsburgh, the Steelers are going to have to make some difficult decisions about who to keep and who to let walk. A few days ago, I released an article exploring the players on the Steelers offense who are set to become free agents after this season. Today we will take a look at the defensive side of the ball.
As it currently stands, the Steelers have 7 defenders whose contracts are set to expire in 2021. Again, this is only considering players who are expected to make the 53 man roster. This list consists of Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree, Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley, Mike Hilton, Cameron Sutton, and Daniel McCullers. All of these players are likely to be contributors to the Steelers defense this fall, and will want to be paid in the offseason. Let's take a look at each of them.
Heyward is coming off one of the best seasons of his career as he enters the final year of a 6 year, $59 million deal. After turning 31 last month, Cam is no spring chicken, and won't be looking for a mega contract like the one he signed back in 2015. However, he is still a highly regarded player who would no doubt receive many offers should he reach the free agent market. Heyward has stated many times that he would like to remain a Steeler for life, but the recent news that the team has yet to make any progress towards an extension with him is slightly worrying. Considering his leadership both on the field and in the locker room, locking up the defensive lineman for a few more years should certainly be a priority in Pittsburgh. A contract similar to the 3 year, $39 million deal Javon Hargrave signed this past offseason should hopefully be enough to do the trick.
Dupree received the franchise tag this past offseason, earning him a salary of almost $16 million for 2020. The 2019 season saw the outside linebacker make huge strides as an edge rusher on his way to 11.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. The main question now is whether the improvement was due to the attention T.J. Watt was drawing on the other side. The Steelers have until mid-July to come to terms with Dupree on a new contract, but given their minimal cap space and the slew of other young stars looking to get paid, it doesn't seem likely a deal will be reached by the deadline. Dupree's best shot at staying in Pittsburgh is to replicate his 2019 campaign this season, and look for a new contract in the offseason.
Alualu is going into the last year of a 2 year deal signed back in 2019. He is the oldest out of this group of free agents and, as a result, probably the least likely to receive a contract extension. He recently turned 33 years old, and considering that he is only a rotational player, there isn't much of a reason to extend the veteran defensive end. Even with Stephon Tuitt out for most of last year, Alualu played just 40% of the Steelers defensive snaps. Unless this number somehow drastically increases in 2020, he will likely need to find a new home next offseason.
Wormley is probably the hardest person on this list to judge because he has yet to play a snap for the Steelers. He spent last season with Baltimore where he played a fairly minor role recording just 1.5 sacks and 33 total tackles. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers decide to utilize him, and if he can help to fill the void left by the departure of Javon Hargrave. Whether or not the Steelers decide to offer him a new contract will depend on how big of an impact he can make in 2020.
After signing his tender last week, Hilton finds himself in a similar position to offensive tackle Matt Feiler. He is set to make over $3 million this year, but will likely be looking for a larger deal with much more long-term security in the offseason. The only issue is the Steelers already have a lot of money invested in their two outside cornerbacks and paying a third corner could be difficult with their limited cap space. Still, Hilton's play last year was enough to earn him a spot on PFF's top 25 cornerbacks list, and he is certainly a crucial part of the secondary. His contract status will hinge largely upon the NFL's salary cap decisions and his ability to continuing performing at a high level this season.
Sutton is closing in on the last year of his rookie deal and will make less than $1 million in 2020. He is in a very similar position as Mike Hilton in that the Steelers are already spending a lot of money on the cornerback position. Due to superior talent above him, Sutton played less than a quarter of the Steelers defensive snaps last year. Hilton on the other hand played over 60% of the snaps and had a more defined role as a true slot corner. The Steelers will likely have to choose between these two corners, and while Sutton would likely be less expensive, he will have an uphill battle to prove his worth this season.
Despite never really having a clear role on the defense, McCullers has found a way to stick around in Pittsburgh. Last year he earned $1.375 million, the same number he is set to make this year, and played in just 12% of defensive snaps. The departure of Javon Hargrave opens up the nose tackle position, and if McCullers wants to stay with the Steelers past 2020, he will have to take full advantage of the opening. Otherwise, he will have to move elsewhere, or resign for a very low salary.
The Steelers list of defensive free agents is really headlined by two big names, Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree. They will certainly try to keep them both, but whether that will be possible is very much up in the air. After them, it's a lot more picking and choosing between players who play the same position.
Who do you think will be extended next offseason? And who do you think will walk in free agency? Make sure you vote in the poll and give your thoughts in the comments below.
Which current defensive player is most likely to get a new contract with the Steelers for 2021?
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