The window for NFL teams to sign a long-term deal with players they used the franchise tag designation has come and gone. There are 12 players set to play under the franchise tag for the 2020 season which, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, is the most since 1993.
The Steelers have now used the franchise tag in three of the last four seasons. Will they use it again for 2021? If so, these are the five most likely candidates for the Steelers to tag rather than lose them to free agency.
The franchise tag values by position from 2020 will be used for reference by each position. With the exception of running back (which went down from 2019 to 2020), every other position saw an increase of at least $300k and as much as $2 million from the previous season depending on the position.
The Steelers defensive captain is the obvious first choice for the franchise tag should it be necessary in the 2021 season. In a recent article by Kristopher Knox of Bleacher Report chose Heyward as the most likely player on the Steelers to be tagged next season. Knox described the choice of Heyward as follows:
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward might be one of the NFL’s most underrated players. Although he isn’t a household name by any means, his versatility and ability to both create pressure and stop the run gives the Steelers a lot of flexibility up front.
“So technically sound that he can handle anything,” one unnamed NFL coach said of Heyward, per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. “When he’s on his technique, he can’t be stopped.
Last season, Heyward racked up 83 tackles, 9.0 sacks and 23 quarterback hits. Although he will turn 32 in May, it would behoove the Steelers to keep him around for the foreseeable future.
The franchise tag may be the best way to do that. If Heyward reaches the open market, he may work his way out of the Steelers’ price range.
“I was told that Heyward could fetch as much as Aaron Donald money in the open market because he can play inside and outside,” The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly recently wrote.
If the Steelers don’t work out a long-term deal with Heyward before next offseason, expect them to tag him to prevent a bidding war.
The biggest issue holding back the Steelers tagging Heyward next season would be actually coming to a long-term deal either before the start of 2020 or after the season before the deadline to designate a player with the franchise tag. Once the financials of playing this season amid the global pandemic are worked out between the players association and the NFL, I assume an extension for Heyward will be a top priority during training camp.
The tag for a defensive tackle in 2020 was $16.126 million. By changing Heyward’s classification several years ago in order to help him be eligible for appropriate postseason awards, it will save the Steelers roughly $1.5 million by him not being listed as a defensive end. Either way, Heyward‘s franchise tag amount could be similar than what he would gain with a new contract.
Likelihood of being tagged: 50/50 (depends on if he gets a deal first)
No, this is not a throwback to 2019. Since they were not able to reach a deal before the deadline, Bud Dupree will be a free agent at the end of the year unless the Steelers apply a second franchise tag to the outside linebacker (or defensive end depending on the ruling of the grievance).
Looking at just the linebacker numbers, Dupree would see a massive increase by being tagged yet again and would cost the Steelers over $22 million on the tag in 2021. Would Dupree be worth this much to the Steelers for an additional year? Even though some fans have already suggested it, I’m not sure they know the exact price tag.
Likelihood of being tagged: Highly unlikely (way too expensive)
The case of JuJu Smith-Schuster could be very interesting following the 2020 season. Much like Heyward, Smith-Schuster is a candidate to receive an extension before the season begins although he’s not nearly as likely. With the Steelers being burned the last time they paid to keep a wide receiver beyond their rookie contract, it’s hard to say their thought process after the season. But if JuJu does a really good-good, perhaps what would be upwards of $18 million for 2021 may be a reasonable consideration.
Likelihood of being tagged: Probably not (unless he explodes in 2020)
As values for running backs continue to drop, the Steelers keep drafting at the position in order to have more options. When it comes to James Conner, chances are what the Steelers would want to pay for a single season is nowhere close to the $10 million it cost to tag a running back in 2020. Conner would have to play a full season of games and produce at a high level for many to think he is worth $10 million for a season. Although the Steelers may choose to bring Conner back, using the franchise tag may be something they think twice about after their last experience using it on a running back.
Likelihood of being tagged: Next to none (not willing to spend at the position)
This was an interesting candidate I decided to throw in just for the fun of doing so. Feiler is set to be one of two Steelers lineman to enter free agency following 2020 along with Alejandro Villanueva. But costing close to $15 million based on the 2020 numbers, Feiler would have to show his value far supersedes that of his fellow Pro Bowl teammates this season.
Likelihood of being tagged: Not totally impossible (already paying a lot of linemen)
Yes, there are other players who were not chosen for the list. Cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton are both set for free agency following the season, but chances are the Steelers will work to retain one of the two players. Other players who will not be under contract following 2020 such as Tyson Alualu, Jordan Berry, Zach Banner, Daniel McCullers, Chris Wormley, and Ryan Switzer just do not seem to be players the Steelers would entertain using the tag at this time.
In my opinion, the only realistic option for 2021 is Cameron Heyward if the Steelers cannot work out a new contract before the deadline. If the Steelers go this route, look for Heyward to be the first Steelers player since Lamar Woodley in 2011 to sign a new contract rather play the season on the franchise tag.