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Which potential Steelers free agents are the biggest priority to return for 2021?

Some big names for the Steelers could hit the open market in 2021. Who should they make the most effort to keep?

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Seattle Seahawks v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

A handful of players stand out as as needing new contracts heading into the 2021 NFL season. This upcoming offseason could alter the team’s identity in a big way (although it pales in comparison to the following offseason when Ben Roethlisberger’s contract is set to expire), and it’s likely a fan favorite or two will find themselves playing for new teams.

If Cameron Heyward and the Steelers are unable to come to an agreement this month, which seems to be getting more likely by the day, then he’ll be a free agent entering the 2021 season. JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner will see their rookie deals expire, and it appears each will have a lot on the line in 2019 — determining their careers in Pittsburgh. Bud Dupree will play under the franchise tag in 2020, hitting the open market again next season. Alejandro Villanueva will require a new contract, as well.

The likelihood that each player returns to Pittsburgh with a long-term deal borders on impossible. Like with Javon Hargrave leaving for the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason, one of those names is likely to receive a lucrative deal somewhere other than Pittsburgh.

In a perfect world, each player would play out their contract seasons in 2020, turning in productive seasons in the quest for a Super Bowl, and subsequently take home town discounts to return in 2021, but that’s about as likely to happen as Aaron Rodgers coming to Pittsburgh. If the Steelers had to sign one of the five, who is the must-have?


Cam Heyward

Heyward is 31 years old now, the old man on the defense, and yet he’s probably the most underrated defensive player in the NFL.

Aside from being the heart and soul of the defense, the unquestioned voice of a suddenly elite unit, he’s produced at levels on the defensive line only trailing the Los Angeles RamsAaron Donald over the last few seasons.

Playing as a defensive end/tackle in the Steelers’ 3-4 system, Heyward is asked to do a lot. In 2019 alone, Heyward tallied nine sacks on 23 quarterback hits, while combining for an absurd 83 tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Heyward racked up 59 pressures and 44 run stops, the most among interior defensive lineman, in 2019. His 91.5 season rating, the highest of his career, ranked 10th among all NFL players.

Since 2017, Heyward has remained one of the best defensive players in the NFL, racking up 12.5, 8.0 and 9.0 sacks, respectively, each season while continuing to stifle the run.

Despite turning 32 heading into free agency next season, Heyward must be resigned. Like a fine wine, Heyward has continued to get better with age.

All indications point to Heyward wanting to spend his entire career in black and gold. It will be up to the Steelers to ensure this comes to fruition now.

The BengalsGeno Atkins might be the best comparison to Heyward’s situation, as Atkins signed a four year, $65 million contract entering the 2019 season. While Heyward has played at a higher level over the past few seasons, a similar deal would likely — hopefully — get the deal done.


JuJu Smith-Schuster

This might be controversial, but JuJu Smith-Schuster is a very good football player and a very good person despite (having to say despite because a guy in his young 20s is living his life, a lot of which is having positive interactions with fans, is insane) his propensity for having fun.

His 2019 season sucked, but whose on the offense didn’t? When you have Mason Rudolph tossing ducks five yards downfield, it’s not exactly the formula for a breakout performance as a No. 1 receiver. Now, I’ll admit, he was probably the third best wideout on the team last season, second if you’re not really feeling James Washington, but his chemistry with Big Ben should erase all doubts of his ability to produce as a top-notch receiver.

JuJu’s 2018 to 2019 season, without the benefit of Antonio Brown drawing two, or even three, defenders clearly didn’t go how anyone wanted. He’s not without fault, with his catch rate down nearly seven points (66.9 to 60.0) and his drop percentage doubling (3.6 to 7.1), but again, look who was throwing him the ball.

Saddled with the pressures of replacing the best wide receiver of the decade, without the only NFL quarterbacks he’s ever known, Smith-Schuster wasn’t exactly set up for success in 2019. I don’t think it would be unfair to chalk the season up as a lost season.

The 2020 season can go a few ways for JuJu Smith-Schuster. If he produces another 100-catch, 1,400-yard season, he’s going to, rightly so, ask for number one wide receiver money — money the Steelers might be able to afford. On the other end of the spectrum, if Smith-Schuster flops again, well, it’s going to be hard justifying a big-money offer to a guy with back-to-back bad seasons. Of course, that might open up a low level offer.

I believe JuJu Smith-Schuster is, and will continue to be, an elite NFL wide receiver. I get the Steelers have a rather fortunate habit of finding capable NFL-caliber wide receivers, but I think it would be a mistake to let JuJu walk, whether that’s because of too good a season or a dreadful one.

It truly is an important year for Smith-Schuster, one that could have a ripple effect across the organization.

As such, his contract comparable is truly up in the air. With a bad season, Smith-Schuster might struggle to get a $6 million offer from the Steelers. With a good season, JuJu could realistically ask for money similar to the top wideouts in the NFL.


Bud Dupree

If JuJu Smith-Schuster is the the No. 2 choice, Dupree is probably the 2B. Dupree’s fifth season breakout was welcome and much needed. After showing flashes of his vast potential for the first four seasons in Pittsburgh (hello Miami Dolphins in the 2017 playoffs), Dupree’s 11.5 sacks across from T.J. Watt created one of the best pass rushing duos in the league. However, as such, his 2020 franchise tag reflects this.

While some might be skeptical of Dupree’s breakout season as a 26 year old, across from Watt no less, Dupree earned his nearly $16 million in 2020. However, would it be smart to invest elite money in a player who probably isn’t elite when players like Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick will reset the markets at their respective positions in the next few seasons?

Welcoming Dupree back on a long-term deal would be a positive move for the Steelers, depending on the price. At just 27 years old, he is in the apex of his career and will likely to continue producing seasons of near double-digit sacks. Dupree will never be a foundational piece in the defense though, as good a role player as he is, but the Steelers don’t need him to be anything other than his current self.

The Steelers are a better team with Dupree in the lineup, but to justify giving him a long-term deal worth north of $17 million a season seems like a move they’ll regret down the line. If the Steelers can get Dupree to accept a lower figure, more power to them. But if Dupree puts together another 10+ sack season, it’s likely he’s priced himself out of Pittsburgh.


Alejandro Villanueva

Alejandro Villanueva has been Mr. Reliable on the left side of the line since he took over the left tackle hole in 2015. The hulking “Big Al” has been reliable in his ability to stay on the field, appearing in all 16 games ever since taking over, not missing a single game. His play on the field has been above the line, grading over 74.0 every year since 2016 according to PFF.

Like Heyward, however, Villanueva is beginning to get up there in age himself. He’ll be 32 during the 2020 season and 33 at the beginning of his next contract. While his play hasn’t drastically declined, 2019 was his worst graded season by PFF in any season where he’s started every game.

With the offensive line beginning to show their age a bit — David Decastro, 30, Maurkice Pouncey, 31, Villanueva, 31, and Ramon Foster, retired — it may be time to start shifting toward a youth movement.

While both the Steelers and Villanueva would do well to strike a new deal, preferably a two year deal, the money will undoubtedly be the deciding factor.


James Conner

What a career it has already been for James Conner. ACC Player of the Season to MCL tear and cancer diagnosis to triumphant return and a nearly 1,000 yard season with his nearly hometown city.

At just 25 years old, Conner has experienced more in life, both good and bad, than most men twice or even three times his age. But as good the story is, however heartwarming, Conner’s next contract might not come from the Steelers.

I think we can all agree running backs on the Steelers in 2019 weren’t given a very fair shake. With a non-existent passing game, an offensive line that played its collective worst in a couple seasons and nagging injuries, Conner underwhelmed across the board.

Aside from a 145-yard game in Week 7, Conner never broke the 55-yard mark. Although he did reach at least 78 yards receiving twice in 2019, in just 10 games Conner racked up 464 yards and four touchdowns at 4.0 yards per attempt.

While Conner isn’t truly a back to be relied upon like a Christian McCaffrey or Saquon Barkley, in terms of modern-day pass catching backs, he’s proven he can be an effective NFL player. His 2018 season was inspired.

The ability to stay on the field (or lack-thereof) has given the Steelers serious doubt about his ability to be a lead back or even earn another contract.

Like his draft-mate JuJu Smith-Schuster, the 2020 season will determine a lot for Conner. If Benny Snell Jr. or Anthony McFarland Jr. (a lot of Jr’s on this team now) can overtake Conner in the depth chart, he’ll likely be searching for a new team next season.


Bottom line, the Steelers will be losing a player who will most likely enter the 2020 season as a starter. Who should the Steelers make it a priority to lock up? Who wouldn’t you mind seeing hit the open market? Make sure you vote in the poll and leave your comments below.

Poll

Which Steelers player is the highest priority to get under contract beyond 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 77%
    Cam Heyward
    (648 votes)
  • 14%
    JuJu Smith-Schuster
    (118 votes)
  • 4%
    Bud Dupree
    (35 votes)
  • 2%
    Alejandro Villanueva
    (21 votes)
  • 1%
    James Conner
    (10 votes)
832 votes total Vote Now