The Pittsburgh Steelers have just about three weeks to hold on to any upcoming unrestricted free agents before they hit the open market. With 19 players set to sign with whatever team they choose, the Steelers will continue to evaluate whether or not they can afford to keep, or lose, a number of their free agents.
One of the biggest factors the team needs to consider with every player is the player’s cost above replacement. What do I mean by this? It means if the Steelers lose a player to free agency, they’re going to have to replace them on the roster. Do the Steelers have a player in line to fill out their position? Is that player less expensive? Is any drop off in production worth the added expense? Will the Steelers have to look to the pool of other free agents or even the NFL draft in order to replace said player?
For this exercise, I am using the projected salary on the free-agent market estimated by Pro Football Focus. While these players could sign for much more or much less, it is at least a starting point for the process. After determining about how much it will cost to retain each player, it will be compared to the realistic options the Steelers have to replace the player, how much it could possibly cost, and if there would be a significant difference in production.
For this first part of the exercise, we will be looking at the top free agents from the Steelers 2020 roster on the defensive side of the ball.
Estimated salary: $10 million per season
Possible replacement: Alex Highsmith
Replacement cost: about $1 million (salary cap hit)
Cost above replacement: $9 million
The Steelers made a very wise move during the 2020 NFL draft and selecting Alex Highsmith with their third-round compensatory pick. By taking a flyer on a player with high production out of a smaller school, the Steelers had a year to see what the had in Highsmith before having to make a decision on Bud Dupree. While Steelers stated publicly they wanted to work out a long-term contract last season with Dupree rather than have him play on the franchise tag, Highsmith became a bit of an insurance policy where, at best, he could move in to be the starter eventually, or, at worst, be the rotational player they needed.
With Highsmith performing an adequate level when filling in for an injured Dupree last season, the Steelers aren’t pressed into paying too much for their 2015 first-round draft pick. With PFF scoring Highsmith above Dupree for the season, there is a lot of potential for growth as Highsmith in his second season. Add in the fact that the $10 million price tag for Dupree is considered low by some, the smart financial move for the Steelers would be to let Dupree walk as the $9 million or more difference in salary would most likely not give nearly the return in production.
There may be some additional cost as Highsmith’s rotational outside linebacker position would need to be replaced by either one of the Steelers own free agents, an outside free agent, or through the 2021 NFL draft.
Mike Hilton & Cam Sutton
Position: CB/Slot CB
Estimated salary: $4 million; $2.75 million per season, respectively
Possible replacement: None
Replacement cost: Unknown
Cost above replacement: Minimal or Negative
I placed these two players together because of the overlapping position. While Mike Hilton might be the Steelers first option at slot cornerback, Cam Sutton can play the position as well as on the outside.
Rather than debate which of these two players it should be, the question is if one or both should be retained. In all honestly, the Steelers don’t have an obvious answer at the slot cornerback position currently on the roster which is obvious.
If the Steelers were looking to find a new slot corner, looking in the 2021 NFL draft would be a hit or miss situation. Therefore, the Steelers would probably look to add a player in free agency as well in order to sure up the position, especially since they would be replacing two players. Exactly what the market would be is up for debate, but it is doubtable it would be less expensive than it would be to retain either Hilton or Sutton, if not both.
If the Steelers could sign either or both players to a three-year deal for the yearly average projected by PFF, their salary cap hit for 2021 would be minimal and the Steelers secondary could continue to be a strength of the team.
Estimated salary: $6 million per season
Possible replacement: Carlos Davis, Isaiah Buggs
Replacement cost: Less than $900k (salary cap hit)
Cost above replacement: $5 million
Tyson Alualu may be the trickiest player on the defense for the Steelers when it comes to if he should be retained. The fact that he set to turn 34 years old in May makes for a difficult situation. But having a career year with the Steelers in 2020, Alualu made most of the Steelers fan base forget about Javon Hargrave.
The tricky thing will be keeping Alualu for the amount of money that makes sense to both sides. While the Steelers have cheap options in Carlos Davis and Isaiah Buggs, should they keep from getting into scuffles on the sidelines, it will ultimately come down to if the Steelers think they can get the production from either of these two players that they did from Alualu.
If the price tag really is one year for $6 million for Tyson Alualu, I think it will be a hard pass for the Steelers. If the Steelers were to sign him to a two-year deal with a $4 million signing bonus and the league minimum in 2021 and a $3 million base salary in 2022, it would make sense to retain him as it would be just around a $3 million cap hit this season. If the price tag is higher, the Steelers may just want to roll with Buggs or Davis.
So there are the cost above replacements for the four top defensive free agents for the Steelers heading into the 2021 offseason. After looking at the options and how much they would cost to replace each player, which ones do you feel would be worthwhile for the Steelers to do all they can to make a deal? Make sure you leave your thoughts in the comments below.