The Pittsburgh Steelers will open their 2016 regular season Monday night against the Washington Redskins and now that their initial roster is set, we can take a quick loom ahead at the several players who are now scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next year. Currently, there are 14 such players and below is quick rundown of each of them.
RB Le’Veon Bell – When the Steelers extended the contract of guard David DeCastro last week, Bell became the top candidate to receive either the franchise or transition tag from the team in 2017. However, how he handles himself both on and off the field this season will ultimately decide whether or not he gets tagged by the team in some form or fashion. Bell, who will sit out the Steelers first three games of the 2016 regular season due to a suspension, showed during the preseason that he is fully recovered from the serious knee injury that he suffered last year. The extra three weeks of rest certainly won’t hurt him and he figures to have a great season on his way to reestablishing himself as one of the best running backs currently in the league.
ILB Lawrence Timmons – The Steelers former first-round draft pick didn’t receive a contract extension prior to the team traveling to Washington for their regular season opener and thus he’s now scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next March. One would hope that the team can find a way to come to terms with the veteran prior to free agency beginning so that he can finish his career right where it started. Even through 2016 will be his 10th NFL season, Timmons is still only 30 years of age and thus should have at least two or three more years left in him.
OLB Jarvis Jones – Jones, another former first-round draft of the Steelers, didn’t have his fifth-year option picked up by the team this past offseason. Because of that, you can fully expect Jones to be allowed to test free agency in 2017 and even if he starts producing like the team hoped he would when they originally drafted him. At worst, the future loss of Jones figures to play a part in the 2018 compensatory draft pick formula.
RB DeAngelo Williams – While he is now 33 years of age, Williams has shown no signs of slowing down and his current wear and tear is that of a much younger running back. With Bell starting the 2016 regular season on the league’s suspended list, Williams will once again be able to show that he can still handle the starting role just as he did last season. Of the players on this list who will be unrestricted free agents in 2017, Williams’ future is the toughest to predict. Assuming he winds up being the same running back that he was last season, it certainly would be nice to see him re-signed prior to the start of free agency in 2017.
OLB James Harrison – One has to think that 2016 will be it for Harrison and especially if the season ends with the Steelers winning the Super Bowl. While he could very well wind up once again playing the most snaps of any outside linebacker currently on the team, he is 38 years old. Harrison will hopefully take over the Steelers all-time sack record in 2016 on his way to retirement.
WR Markus Wheaton – Much like Jones, the Steelers seem prepared to let Wheaton ride off to another team in 2017 via free agency. Additionally, being as a shoulder injury has the team’s former third-round draft pick sidelined at the start of the regular season, you have to wonder just how much playing time Wheaton ultimately receive moving forward barring any injuries at the wide receiver position. He’ll get his chances to contribute in 2016 and his future market value will be dependent on how he performs when his number is called. At worst, Wheaton’s likely future exodus from Pittsburgh should factor into the 2018 compensatory draft pick formula.
QB Landry Jones – Jones will enter the 2016 regular season as the Steelers backup to starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The hope is that the only snaps he plays in 2016 will come in Weeks 16 and 17 as a starter and as a result of the Steelers having home-field advantage throughout the playoffs already locked up at that point. One would think that Jones is looking forward to testing the free agent market next March and the Steelers will likely let him do just that. In the meantime, the team will work to develop current No. 3 quarterback Zach Mettenberger during the 2016 season in hopes that he can assume the backup job in 2017 should Jones ultimately wind up leaving Pittsburgh for a more money and a potential shot to compete for a starting job with a different team. At worst, losing Jones in 2017 via free agency should factor into the 2018 compensatory draft pick formula.
DE Ricardo Mathews – Mathews, who was signed to a one-year free agent contract during the offseason, played well enough during the team’s preseason games to give us all hope that he can be a reliable rotational piece on the defensive line throughout the 2016 season. Should he ultimately play well, one would think the Steelers might be interested in re-signing him to a longer deal prior to March, the start of free agency. With that said, Mathews might want to first test the market to see if he can get a better offer and perhaps more playing time so it’s tough to predict him actually returning in 2017 as we sit here at the start of the 2016 regular season.
S Shamarko Thomas – Thomas is now entering the final year of his rookie contract as a backup safety and special teams contributor. With rookie draft pick Sean Davis now in the fold, Thomas isn’t likely to see much, if any, playing time in 2016 on defense barring injuries. As a result, expect Thomas to be looking forward to getting a fresh start with a different team in 2017 as he’s almost certain to test free agency. Should the Steelers ultimately decided to re-sign the Syracuse product and former fourth-round draft pick, it would only likely be for the league minimum and with no guarantees he’ll make the final 2017 roster.
C/G Cody Wallace – Wallace, who started every game at center in 2015 for the injured Maurkice Pouncey, is probably about to play his final season in Pittsburgh. If things go like many hope they will in 2016, Wallace won’t have to play much at all. A knee injury suffered during the preseason will result in him missing the team’s Monday night opener and we’ll have to wait and see if he’s able to return for Week 2. In the meantime, former undrafted free agent B.J. Finney will likely be the team’s backup interior swing-man with an eye on permanently getting that job in the future. Should Wallace wind up with another team in 2017 as a free agent addition, don’t count on his signing factoring in much, if any, into the 2018 compensatory draft pick formula.
TE David Johnson – With starting fullback Roosevelt Nix currently sidelined with a back injury and new tight end Ladarius Green safely tucked away on the team’s Reserve/PUP list for the foreseeable future, Johnson should get a fair share of playing time at during the first half of the 2016 regular season and perhaps beyond. With that said, Johnson’s future market value doesn’t have much room to grow and thus he’ll likely be considered a lower-level unrestricted free agent in 2017. On the surface, it’s easy to speculate that 2016 will be Johnson’s final year in Pittsburgh and should he ultimately wind up being re-signed, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be around one year from now.
LS Greg Warren – Warren has been a fixture at long snapper for the Steelers since 2005 and at some point that will come to an end. With that said, as long as Warren remains error-free for the most part as a long snapper, there’s no reason to think that he won’t be back in 2017 once again on another one-year minimum salary contract.
LB Steven Johnson – I forgot to add Johnson, who was re-signed after the final roster shuffling took place. The veteran special teamer will likely play only one season in Pittsburgh.
QB Bruce Gradkowski – Thanks to a hamstring injury suffered during the preseason, Gradkowski wound up on the team’s Reserve/Injured list a few weeks ago. If he decides to continue his career in 2017, he’ll have to hope a different team has interest in signing him after the primary portion of free agency runs its course as I just can’t see the Steelers re-signing him again.
I addition to the 14 prospective unrestricted free agents listed above, three other players currently under contract with the Steelers will be restricted free agents in 2017. That small list of players includes cornerback Ross Cockrell, tackle/guard Chris Hubbard and running back Daryl Richardson. Should the Steelers wish to prevent any or all of those players from testing free agency, they will first need to tender them restricted contracts prior to the start of the 2017 league year.
When it comes to the long list of players currently under contract with the Steelers who will exclusive rights free agents at the end of the 2016 season, those players can easily be retained by offering them one-year contracts for the minimum which they must accept.
I will next update this list during the team’s bye week.