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Tyson Alualu’s free agent departure is the first one that hurts

Tyson Alualu’s free agent departure might be the one that hurts the Steelers most of all.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Before I begin this article, I’d just like to address its headline by pointing out that there’s a huge difference between feeling bad and being surprised.

As the Steelers entered the unrestricted free-agency period, they did so with—depending on which site you wanted to believe—$ 6 million or six cents left under the cap. Either way, keeping most of their own free agents was certainly out of the question. Half? Probably not. Heck, retaining even a third of them may have been a stretch.

In other words, no departure was going to surprise yours truly.

But that doesn’t mean that losing a certain player or two wouldn’t hurt. I kind of figured Bud Dupree would leave; he did. I knew Mike Hilton already had his bags packed; he’s on his way to Cincinnati. Everyone was shocked that Matt Feiler received a $21 million deal; I was not.

As of this writing, JuJu Smith-Schuster has yet to be linked to a deal with another team, but you can certainly figure on that happening sooner rather than later.

Alex Highsmith was drafted in theory to replace Dupree, and it looks like that is still the plan for 2021. Cam Sutton was re-signed on a two-year deal to presumably take Hilton’s spot at slot corner. Right tackle Zach Banner was retained at a much cheaper cost than it would have taken to re-sign Feiler and move him back over to that position.

As for young and promising receivers? The Steelers still have plenty of those.

With all that in mind, I secretly assumed that Tyson Alualu, the veteran defensive lineman who became a full-time starter when Javon Hargrave left as a free agent a year ago, would be one of the Steelers’ top priorities. Alualu, 33, stepped into Hargrave’s role last season and was such a valuable contributor, it was more than noticeable when he missed some time with an injury late in the year.

With the likes of Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis as the current top candidates to replace Alualu as a starter, I didn’t want to think about what that could mean for what was once a very strong and deep part of the Steelers’ defense.

Now, I have to think about that. Why? Because it was reported on Tuesday that Alualu signed a two-year contract to go back and play for his old team, the Jaguars.

On the surface, the contract appears to be worth a total of $6 million—or the same amount as Alualu’s last two deals with the Steelers going back to 2017.

Seems like a pretty reasonable price to pay to keep a starter, doesn’t it? So what happened? After doing some research via, in my opinion, guaranteed money is what happened. Yes, while the total value is the same on paper, the guaranteed money—the sum Alualu will get from Jacksonville even if he gets cut next March—is much more than he received from Pittsburgh in each of his last contracts. The Steelers guaranteed Alualu $1.75 million in each of his previous two contracts with them; Jacksonville, on the other hand, is guaranteeing Alualu nearly $ 4 million.

I’m probably not going out on much of a limb when I assume that Art II and Co. weren’t willing to guarantee the big guy that much money.

I guess this is where not having enough cap room can come back to bite a team. Or, better yet, this is where not wanting to guarantee money beyond the first year of a new deal can hinder a franchise.

Either way, this loss really stings.

You can be optimistic about all the previously-mentioned replacements for the dearly departed—let’s not forget Robert Spillane, who will now presumably be the starting buck inside linebacker following the release of Vince Williams on Tuesday—but Buggs and Davis are about as green as a St. Patrick’s Day beer.

In other words, totally unproven.

What will the Steelers' plan be to replace Alualu? A free agent from the outside? A draft pick?

Buggs and/or Davis?

No matter what they decide, it has to work. If not, Tyson Alualu’s absence for all of 2021 may be more noticeable than his brief, injury-induced absence in 2020.