This offseason figures to be more monotonous and full of empty rhetoric than most, and that should be no surprise, given the extenuating circumstances we are seeing around the world. With the likelihood that we won’t be seeing anything on the field for the foreseeable future, coverage has involved a lot of speculation and future projection.
This isn’t the first one we’ve seen this offseason, but Pro Football Focus recently took a stab at projecting who the top free agent players are going to be in 2021. The Pittsburgh Steelers have a number of very notable players who are entering the final years of their contract. Most of them are not on the list. And the one who is won’t be playing through the final year of his contract.
The only Steeler on the list, checking in at 23 of 25, is Cameron Heyward, the 10th-year veteran defensive end who has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past three years, a span that also includes two first-team All-Pro selections.
It is expected that an extension for Heyward is on the way and for good reason. Heyward has earned two All-Pro selections over the past three seasons, and he is coming off the three highest-graded campaigns of his career in 2017, 2018 and 2019, capped by a 91.5 overall grade on a much-improved Pittsburgh Steelers defense last season. His 180 quarterback pressures over those three years are fourth among interior defenders, rounding out a profile that also includes a top-10 grade at the position against the run. The only thing keeping him this low on the list is his age, as Heyward will be 32 years old by next offseason. Coming off a career year, though, there are no signs of slowing down right now.
Of the 25-player list, six are wide receivers, and none are JuJu Smith-Schuster, who will be the youngest out of all of them when they hit free agency next offseason. His injury-plagued 2019 season is surely what knocked him down a couple of pegs and behind the likes of T.Y. Hilton, A.J. Green, and Kenny Golladay. Green, meanwhile, has missed all but nine games over the past two seasons.
Also somewhat notable in his absence, though to a lesser degree, is James Conner. Only one running back—Alvin Kamara—was even included on the list, and that was at 25, so it’s not exactly a shock, but Conner is one of the most significant players for Pittsburgh whose contract expires after this season.
Heyward is going to make bank with an extension in the near future. Smith-Schuster and Conner can set themselves up for life if they have strong seasons in 2020. The former is likely to be re-signed by the Steelers, but the latter is a much bigger question.