In a long series this week on ESPN.com, Bill Barnwell is attempting to project the first five things every NFL team should be thinking about as they prepare for the new league year, which begins March 18. It’s quite an undertaking for sure. On Tuesday, Barnwell addressed the four teams in the AFC North division and the first five things each should be focused on doing in the coming weeks. With Barnwell’s projections and suggestions for the Pittsburgh Steelers now on the record, I took time out Wednesday morning to add my analysis of his analysis.
1- Create cap space. This is an obvious call given the number you see above (minus-$2.1 million). The Steelers can start creating room by cutting inside linebacker Mark Barron, which will free up $5.3 million and instantly get them under the cap. They could also create an additional $5 million by moving on from fellow linebacker Anthony Chickillo. With Bud Dupree hitting free agency, however, I wonder whether they will try to get Chickillo to take a pay cut with the promise of more regular defensive snaps in 2020. He took just 13% of the snaps on defense last season while missing five games.
Otherwise, Pittsburgh is looking at restructuring deals, which will be trickier given that the final year of the collective bargaining agreement mandates that contracts honor the 30% rule.
Dave’s analysis of 1.: Yes, the Steelers will indeed need to create quite a bit of salary cap space this offseason with a lot of that creation taking place in the next four weeks. Not only will inside linebacker Mark Barron need to be cut as part of that process as Barnwell suggested above, but more than likely guard Ramon Foster as well. As for Barnwell wondering if the Steelers can get outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo to take a pay cut in lieu of getting cut, such a pay cut would need to be so drastic that he would unlikely agree to it. After all, Chickillo is just a good special teams player who can give a team just a few unspectacular snaps a game at outside linebacker so the starters can get a breather or two. Barnwell doesn’t mention the possibility of the Steelers not picking up the 2020 option on tight end Vance McDonald. While that seems unlikely as of this past week, it’s still an option that Barnwell should have touched on. Barnwell’s suggestion that outside linebacker Bud Dupree will ultimately hit free agency a month from now is understandable. However, the Steelers have given every indication so far this offseason that they will do everything that they can to prevent that from happening and that includes them possible using the franchise tag on their former first-round draft pick. Letting Dupree walk-away uncontested, however, would lighten the offseason salary cap burden on the team quite significantly. Barnwell ends with a correct statement about how tough contract restructures will be for the Steelers this offseason under the current CBA situation because of the 30 percent rule. I wrote extensively about that very topic several weeks ago as well.
2 – Add a replacement for Dupree.The Steelers will likely have to let Dupree leave in free agency after the 2015 first-rounder finished his Pittsburgh run with a great contract year. After posting 11.5 sacks in 2017 and ’18, his first two years as the full-time starting outside linebacker, he matched that total and also registered 17 knockdowns in 2019.
Of course, this could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the team. Dupree was a middling 52nd in ESPN’s pass rush win rate, which was right in line with Terrell Suggs, who was a waiver-wire acquisition late in the season for the Chiefs. There’s a very Nick Perry feeling to this career year from Dupree, and when the Packers responded to Perry’s 11-sack breakout in Year 5 by giving him a five-year, $59 million deal, it turned out poorly for Green Bay. I’d imagine Dupree will be looking for something in the range of five years and $70 million, and the Steelers are probably better off letting someone else take that risk. They could pursue a possible cap casualty such as Ryan Kerrigan to take over in the short term while using their second-round pick on a long-term option.
Dave’s analysis of 2.: As you can clearly see by now, Barnwell is already convinced that the Steelers will/should let Dupree leave via unrestricted free agency in the next month. However, him suggesting that Dupree will be looking for a long-term deal that will average just $14 million a season seems way, way low based on how the free agency market for edge-rushers was a year ago. If the Steelers could get Dupree to agree to such a deal that would be great. However, I see that as a pipe dream and thus very unrealistic and especially if they must first place the franchise tag on him. As for Barnwell’s suggestion that the Steelers could pursue a possible offseason edge-rusher cap causality such as Ryan Kerrigan should Dupree be allowed to ride off into the sunset, he obviously doesn’t know that the organization has a long history of not signing outside defensive free agents that are 30 years old or older. Kerrigan will be 32 come the start of the 2020 regular season and will likely still command too much money as a street free agent should he indeed become a cap causality. Should the Steelers indeed let Dupree leave in the next month, they would have to hope that unproven backup outside linebackers Olasunkanmi Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper are up to the challenge of playing on the right side. The Steelers would also likely need to spend one of their first two 2020 draft selections on a young edge-rusher to boot.
3 – Draft an interior lineman.Utility lineman B.J. Finney is a free agent, and while the loser of the battle between restricted free agents Matt Feiler and Zach Banner could kick inside in a pinch, the future is fast approaching for the Steelers on the interior. Guard Ramon Foster is 34 and entering the final year of his contract extension, while center Maurkice Pouncey is 30 and in Year 2 of his three-year deal. Pittsburgh doesn’t have its first- or third-round picks, but it would ideally use one of its two fourth-round selections on a lineman who can fill either spot as a backup in 2020 before stepping in for Foster next year.
Dave’s analysis of 3.: Yes, the Steelers will indeed likely need to draft an interior offensive lineman this year and especially if both Foster and B.J. Finney don’t return. It certainly doesn’t appear as though Barnwell is giving much thought to Foster being jettisoned in the next four weeks and he really should be. It’s also a bit silly for Barnwell to suggest that tackle Zach Banner could kick inside to guard in a pinch. He should have listed Matt Feiler as the one and only option to do so and moved on. Barnwell also appears to have no idea that the Steelers are expected to receive a third-round compensatory draft pick in the coming weeks. That noted, Barnwell’s suggestion that the Steelers could use one of their two currently scheduled fourth-round draft picks on an interior offensive lineman might be his best offseason speculation of his we’ve reviewed so far.
4 – Work on an extension with JuJu Smith-Schuster.It’s fair to say 2019 was a lost year for Smith-Schuster, who played just 58% of the offensive snaps amid injuries and wasn’t healthy for most of the snaps he did see. After a 103-yard game against the Dolphins on Monday Night Football in Week 8, he recorded just 109 receiving yards across five appearances the rest of the way.
I don’t see any reason for the Steelers to sour on Smith-Schuster’s long-term development, especially given that the 2018 Pro Bowler is still only 23. As he enters the final year of his rookie deal, they will need to find a way to use the little cap space they do have to lock up their No. 1 wideout. Even coming off the down year, he is likely looking at something in the ballpark of $19 million per season. That’s a lot of dog toys for Boujee.
Dave’s analysis of 4.: In a roundabout way, Barnwell is suggesting that the Steelers let Dupree walk in lieu of signing wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to a mega-deal this offseason. Good luck with that idea if no CBA extension is finalized soon as the 30 percent rule would make it very tough for the Steelers to afford the high 2020 salary cap charge that would come with a new contract extension for Smith-Schuster. You would think Barnwell would know that fact with him pointing out that rule in No. 1. It’s hard to imagine the Steelers signing Smith-Schuster to a contract extension this offseason even if a CBA extension is finalized this offseason. The Steelers should also not be viewed as “souring on” Smith-Schuster this offseason if they don’t sign him to an extension. If he has a 2020 season like the one he had in 2018, the Steelers will take care of him a year from now. Instead of listing a contract extension for Smith-Schuster, Barnwell should have listed defensive tackle Cameron Heyward as a candidate to receive one this offseason. Getting an extension done with Heyward would not only ensure that he ends his NFL career in Pittsburgh, but also possibly result in some minuscule 2020 salary cap savings as well. Barnwell really missed the boat here.
5 – Pick up T.J. Watt’s fifth-year option.The Steelers will happily pick up the Defensive Player of the Year candidate’s fifth-year option for 2021. While big brother J.J. signed an extension with the Texans after three years, Pittsburgh might not realistically have the cap room to hand T.J. a new deal until the 2020 offseason. We need to see what sort of contracts are handed out this offseason before I can put numbers on what a Watt extension might look like, but it would hardly be surprising if he became the NFL’s highest-paid edge rusher.
Dave’s analysis of 5.: This is the equivalent of Barnwell sinking a tap-in putt for par. Yes, the Steelers should and will pick up the fifth-year option on outside linebacker T.J. Watt for the 2021 season in the coming months. At least Barnwell is on point here and thus there’s really nothing more to add on this fifth and final topic.