The last time I wrote about something Ed Bouchette wrote, I was basically bombarded with comments about how he lacks virtually all credibility at this point in his journalism career. I’m not exactly going to push back against that, although I don’t think Chukwuma Okorafor playing guard is the wildest idea I’ve ever heard. Remember when Willie Colon was never going to move inside?
Anyway, Bouchette, who is now with The Athletic, which I’ve admittedly only recently started paying attention to, apparently attracted some attention among Pittsburgh Steelers fans yesterday when he was asked in a chat to make predictions about the likelihood of some prominent 2021 free agents remaining with the team.
He was given four names: Bud Dupree, who is currently under the franchise tag; Alejandro Villanueva; JuJu Smith-Schuster; and James Conner. The latter two are in the final years of their rookie contracts as 2017 draft picks. Villanueva is concluding a four-year deal that he signed as an exclusive rights free agent at a budget rate.
Bouchette’s predictions? A flat-out ‘no’ for Conner returning. Smith-Schuster is ‘not likely’ to return, while Villanueva will ‘probably not’ be retained, either. He didn’t give a clear answer about Dupree, but offered that he has the best chance of the group.
The Steelers have gone on record multiple times this offseason to make it clear that they see Dupree in their long-term plans, and they will be negotiating a long-term contract with him this offseason. They have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal before they are locked into a one-year pact for 2020.
The other players they haven’t publicly commented on the contract status of the other players this offseason. Back in January, Kevin Colbert did say of Smith-Schuster that they think highly of him and that “he can be an outstanding player in the league moving forward”.
In the cases of both Smith-Schuster and Conner, the Steelers have used fairly substantial draft resources at their positions every year since they were taken. At wide receiver, they followed Smith-Schuster with James Washington, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool. At running back, Conner was succeeded by Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, and Anthony McFarland.
As for Villanueva, who will be 32 by March, as long as he doesn’t fall on his face, he should command a substantial pay raise as a left tackle in comparison to what the team has been paying him. Meanwhile, they are hoping to see development from their young tackles in Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner.
The latter, as well as Matt Feiler, are both also unrestricted free agents in 2021, and as this offseason has shown, you can’t keep everyone. Good luck across-state, Javon Hargrave.