While we are still in the midst of the free agency period in 2020—even with the majority of the major signings already taken care of, though there are still some significant names remaining on the market—some are already turning their attentions to the future, as to who might cash in next offseason as they hit unrestricted free agency.
Kevin Seifert of ESPN posted an Insider article recently examining some of the players scheduled to be free agents next year who could stand the best chance of cashing in, in a big way. A couple of members of the Pittsburgh Steelers cracked that list.
Outside of some giant names in the top 10, we have wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster coming in at number 12. It’s fair to say that, if the 2019 season had gone differently, his name would surely be much higher on this list.
“Smith-Schuster leads all receivers drafted in 2017 with 211 career catches and 2,895 receiving yards”, Seifert notes, despite the caveat of his numerical decline a year ago. “He’ll also be one of the youngest free agents on the market after entering the NFL at age 20”.
The other Steeler who is in the top 25 is Alejandro Villanueva, entering at number 14 on the list. The veteran left tackle is entering the final year of a four-year contract that he signed, as an exclusive rights free agent, in 2017. He has made two Pro Bowls during that time.
Even though he will be 32 by the time he hits free agency, recent history has shown that age is not a major roadblock for tackles, either in terms of performance or getting paid. Andrew Whitworth, for example, is 38 and signed a three-year extension worth up to almost $38 million.
While Villanueva was able to cash in early, he took a very modest deal for a franchise left tackle at $24 million over four years. the top tackles are making three times that today, or very near it. Anthony Castonzo is making $16.5 million per season. Lane Johnson is making $18, though only $25 million of his $72 million deal was guaranteed.
Bud Dupree is another player mentioned, but in a separate category as a player who is franchise tagged. The Steelers have already gone on record saying that they would like to do a long-term contract with him this offseason.
Perhaps conspicuously absent from the list is James Conner, part of Smith-Schuster’s draft class. Other running backs like Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, and Tarik Cohen were included on the list, however.
One might also wonder about the exclusion of T.J. Watt, but in his case, the Steelers are sure to pick up his fifth-year option, which means that he would not be eligible for unrestricted free agency until 2022—even though the team is highly likely to get him extended and paid next offseason.