The Pittsburgh Steelers have just under 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.
Earlier this week, we looked at the top free agents on the defensive side of the ball.
For the second part of the exercise, we will be looking at the top free agents from the Steelers 2020 roster on offense.
Estimated salary: $17 million per season
Possible replacement: NFL Draft
Replacement cost: less than $1 million (salary cap hit)
Cost above replacement: $16 million
First, to explain a replacement for JuJu Smith-Schuster, the three receivers the Steelers have behind him basically all bump up one spot. So to bring in another receiver is probably going to happen through the NFL draft. While it is possible that Steelers could look for an inexpensive free agent, they have a much better record of finding an adequate receiver coming out of college.
Of course, there’s the production brought by Smith-Schuster which will be difficult to replace by merely one player. Ideally, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and James Washington would combine take the load of the loss of Smith-Schuster whether it is split evenly or not. Adding another player to the mix to help cover the loss, the Steelers are probably not willing to go anywhere close to a $17 million price tag for JuJu. If he is serious about the “grass not being greener” outside of Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster would likely have to take a salary as low as 60% of this number and have it structured to be a very low cap hit for 2021. Anything more and the cost above replacement is way too much.
Estimated salary: $15 million per season
Possible replacement: Chukwuma Okorafor, NFL Draft, or Free Agency
Replacement cost: Under $1 million to $5 million
Cost above replacement: +$10 million
First off, I can’t believe a $15 million price tag for Villanueva by PFF. Maybe I’m naïve, but I thought Villanueva was closer to hanging up the cleats then he was to an enormous payday somewhere else. Even if it were half the price, the age factor comes into consideration and the replacement issue seems much more the option for the Steelers.
The reason Chuks Okorafor is listed as the replacement is because he is the only tackle under contract right now with the Steelers other than those from the practice squad. Whether or not the Steelers will choose to put Okorafor at left tackle or not remains to be seen.
Even with the exact path of replacement unknown, it appears the cost of keeping Villanueva is just too much unless he decides to stick around for one more year on a very team-friendly deal.
Estimated salary: $6.67 million per season
Possible replacement: Benny Snell Jr., NFL Draft, Free Agency
Replacement cost: Less than $1 million to $4 million
Cost above replacement: almost $3 million
Once again, this is a position where the Steelers have multiple options to replace Conner at running back. With the Steelers inability to run the ball consistently in 2021, it’s not that any of the running backs on their roster, including James Conner, instill a lot of confidence in anyone. But if the Steelers invest in upgrading the offensive line, any of the running backs could benefit.
Should the Steelers move on from Conner, expect them to use a draft pick on the running back for the fifth straight year although exactly how high is up for debate. The Steelers could also look to add an experienced veteran to the room, but doing so for too much more than the league minimum salary does not sound like something the Steelers would do at this point.
If James Conner is going to command over $6 million on the open market, there is little to no reason for the Steelers to invest this type of money into the position. The cost above replacement is simply too high as the Steelers have other cheaper options.
Estimated salary: $6 million per season
Possible replacement: Kevin Dotson
Replacement cost: Under $1 million
Cost above replacement: $5 million
If looking at Matt Feiler strictly as a guard, it’s a no brainer that the cost above replacement is too high. With Kevin Dotson on a rookie deal, he should have received the playing time in the playoff game last season and should be the starter at one of the guard positions week one of 2021.
The only other wild card for the Steelers when it comes to guard would be if David DeCastro decided to call it a career. At this point, DeCastro is on the roster and entrenched as the starter.
The only issue when it comes to cost above replacement for Feiler would be if he made the move back to tackle. If so, he becomes a very interesting option should the Steelers consider the $6 million or below yearly salary especially if the cap hit in 2021 is much lower.
So there are the cost above replacements for the four top offensive 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.