The Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 offseason is now underway and while most of the work that needs to be done by the organization in the coming months will mainly revolve around soon-to-be free agents, cuts and maybe a contract restructure or three, the team also has a few candidates to sign contract extensions prior to the start of the 2020 regular season.
In reality, there are currently five Steelers players under contract through the 2020 season that be considered extension candidates this coming offseason and two others that are set to be free agents soon. Obviously, and as reasoned out thoroughly below, just a few of those seven players are more likely to sign contract extensions this offseason than the others.
Below is the breakdown of the Steelers seven players that can probably be considered contract extension candidates between now and the start of the 2020 regular season along with the likelihood of each happening:
OLB Bud Dupree – The Steelers appear to be set to make Dupree, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, an offseason priority. While the Steelers could certainly sign Dupree to a contract extension ahead of having to place the franchise tag on him this offseason, should they indeed have the want to go that route, the odds of that happening should probably be considered low. Dupree would be wise to force the Steelers to tag him by the start of the new league year to prevent him from testing unrestricted free agency. Assuming that Dupree is indeed ultimately given the franchise tag, the team would then have the rest of the offseason to get him signed to a contract extension and one that would likely average around $18-$20 million or so a season. Consider Dupree an if/then candidate at this point.
DT Cameron Heyward – The Steelers defensive captain put together another solid season in 2019 that included him registering 83 total tackles, nine sacks, six passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Heyward is set now to earn $9.5 million in 2020, the final year of his current contract. While he’ll turn 31 in May, there’s no signs of him slowly down and thus one last contract extension figures to be on tap for him at some point during the offseason and maybe sooner rather than later. A new deal for Heyward this offseason could come with a new yearly average of $18 million or slightly more, which would put him back in the top 5 earners in the NFL for defensive linemen. With the 30 percent rule needed to be navigated closer than ever this coming offseason pending a surprising CBA extension, an extension for Heyward that adheres to that might ultimately only save around $3 million in 2020 salary cap space for the Steelers. At this point, it’s probably only a matter of when the Steelers sign Heyward to an extension and not if. Will said extension happen prior to the start of the new league year in March to help clear some much-needed salary cap space? It certainly could. If, however, the Steelers don’t get Heyward’s contract extension done in the spring, it might not happen until after training camp breaks
T Alejandro Villanueva – While Villanueva certainly isn’t considered the best left tackle in the NFL, you can make an easy argument for being well within the top 15 at his position. Villanueva, who is also the Steelers iron man with a team-best current consecutive games started streak of 74, is currently set to earn just $5 million in 2020. While the former Army captain is now 31, he’s criminally underpaid heading into what is set to be the final year of his current contract. At worst, Villanueva should have a $12 million per season average come the start of the 2020 regular season and that’s double the $6 million average he’s currently sporting. Giving Villanueva an extension this offseason that meets what he deserves, however, would result in his currently scheduled salary cap charge of $8.39 million jumping up around $3 million or so due to the 30 percent rule. That’s quite a conundrum the Steelers will have this offseason with Villanueva. Can they really expect him to be happy playing for $5 million in 2020? I don’t think so, so don’t be surprised if he gets a new deal at some point during the summer.
LS Kameron Canaday – Why the hell is there a soon-to-be restricted free agent long snapper in the middle of this list? It’s because he’s a soon to be a restricted free agent long snapper with a lot of value to the Steelers. Sure, the Steelers could put a lowly right-of-first refusal restricted tender on Canaday and hope that no other team signs him to an offer sheet that they might not be able to, or want to, match. Such a tender comes with a $2.144 million price tag so the Steelers might be wise to sign Canaday to an extension ahead of restricted tendering him so that his 2020 cap charge can remain a little lower. This isn’t a huge deal in the grande scheme of things, but don’t be surprised if Canaday signs a short extension this offseason instead of being restricted tendered.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – Injuries and not having quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for nearly all the season resulted in Smith-Schuster having a miserable 2019 as the former second-round draft pick only caught 42 passes for 552 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games played in. Had Smith-Schuster had the kind of 2019 season that many expected him to have, which would have been close to a repeat of his 2018 season, he would have easily been in line to sign a contract extension this coming offseason that may have resulted in him being one of the top 10 highest paid at his position. However, as things stand right now, there’s no guarantee that Smith-Schuster will sign an extension this coming offseason unless it’s one slanted heavily in favor of the Steelers regarding yearly average. Smith-Schuster might be wise to bet on himself in 2020 as a return to form of Roethlisberger next season is sure to help his cause. Assuming he stays healthy and produces another season in 2020 like the one he had in 2018, Smith-Schuster could force the Steelers to use the franchise tag on him a little more than a calendar year from right now. Due to the lucrative commercial endorsement deals that Smith-Schuster likely already has in place, he shouldn’t be hurting for money. In short, while Smith-Schuster might still be considered a contract extension candidate this offseason, it’s far from guaranteed that he’ll ultimately get one.
RB James Conner – Conner, like Smith-Schuster, had a very lackluster 2019 season that included several games being lost to injury. Had Conner repeated his 2018 season in 2019, there would currently be a lot of talk about him potentially getting a contract extension this offseason. Conner’s injury history through three seasons played is now very concerning and so both he and the Steelers are likely going to want to hold off on possible contract extension talks until after the 2020 season. At this point, Conner, like Smith-Schuster, would be wise to bet on himself instead of signing a deal that would lock him up for several more seasons.
OLB T.J. Watt – We’ll know in a few more weeks whether Watt did enough during the 2019 season to win the NFL’s annual Defensive Player of the Year award. Even if he doesn’t get that award this season, the team’s MVP for 2019 has now become one of the NFL’s best edge players. Watt is set to earn just $1,727,565 in 2020 and that’s criminally low considered the player he’s already become. Technically, Watt’s rookie contract currently runs through the 2020 season. However, as a former first-round draft pick, Watt’s contract includes a fifth-year option that can be exercised this offseason. Semantics? Will the Steelers give their star defensive player a super mega deal this offseason that could result in him being the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player, or wait instead to next offseason after exercising his fifth-year option this spring? The choice will likely be the latter of those two due to the team’s salary cap situation and the current CBA uncertainty past 2020. However, we’ll put Watt on this list as an outside candidate to receive an extension this offseason just the same just in case the Steelers want to nip his ever-increasing value in the bud early.
Summary: Of the seven players on this list that might be considered candidates to sign contract extensions this coming offseason, Heyward is the only one that’s close to being a lock to do so. Dupree’s situation is entirely dependent on if he gets the tag as he’s unlikely to sign an extension prior to the start of the new league year in March. Villanueva probably has the next highest probability of the seven players and he’s followed by Canaday. While anything is certainty possible, it would seem that Smith-Schuster, Conner and Watt aren’t likely to sign extensions this offseason.