Late Thursday night the Pittsburgh Steelers announced they have agreed to terms on a new deal with defensive lineman Cameron Heyward. The 6-year $59.25 million dollar contract extension makes Heyward the 5th highest paid defensive end in the NFL, guaranteeing him nearly $10 million dollars per season.
Heyward was on top of the team's list of players to re-sign after they agreed on an extension with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger earlier this offseason, and with Heyward's deal keeping him in Pittsburgh for the long-term, who will be next for the team to sign?
Left tackle Kelvin Beachum is in the final year of his rookie deal and has grossly out-performed his current contract. The former 7th round draft pick is due to make just over $1.5 million dollars in 2015, and will be looking to have a big upgrade in pay when he gets a new contract. Whether that contract is with the Steelers or another team has yet to be determined.
The Steelers would be wise to keep Ben Roethlisberger's blind side covered with Beachum still in the fold, but Beachum isn't the only player who is looking for a new contract before or after the 2015 season.
Others who are in the final year of their current contract and will be looking for a new deal are: OG Ramon Foster, CB William Gay, NT Steve McLendon, CB Antwon Blake, OT Mike Adams, FB/TE Will Johnson, S Robert Goldon and ILB Sean Spence.
Not all of these players will get a new contract, especially when players like David DeCastro will be entering the 5th year of their current deal and will surely get the Heyward treatment in terms of avoiding a key player entering a contract season.
Every NFL team has to deal with free agency, players out-playing their current contracts and re-tooling if you are unable to keep any number of players who have been in your system for years. However, the Steelers need to prioritize who they sign and who they keep, and the majority of those decisions could unfold in 2015.
Steve McLendon is a solid, but often injured, nose tackle, but his future with the team will largely depend on the play and development of Daniel McCullers this year. If McCullers shows he is capable of locking down the interior of the Steelers' defensive line, McLendon will likely be permitted to test free agent waters this offseason. The same can be said in regards to the play of rookies Senquez Golson and Doran Grant and the future of William Gay. If Golson and Grant prove they are NFL-ready cornerbacks, Gay very well might be permitted to test free agency and be re-signed if there are no suitors who are actively interested in the veteran cornerback.
Although the fine print details of Heyward's contract haven't been released, the Steelers had just over $7.5 million dollars remaining salary cap space prior to Heyward's contract extension (cap room provided by overthecap.com). With such little space left, there is a strong possibility the team will be done making moves this offseason, and by doing so could equate to a number of players possibly leaving the team via free agency before the 2016 NFL season.
Locking up arguably the team's best, and most consistent, defender in Heyward was a must for the team, but now they are faced with some very difficult decisions ahead in both starting players and depth across the roster.