The Pittsburgh Steelers have assembled a nice pool of talent for the 2019 season. It’s made up by a nice mix of veterans and young players in various states of their career. The problem is, a lot of them are in the final year of their contracts, and it will be difficult getting more than one or two of them re-signed.
On the offensive line alone, you have at least two, and possibly three starters who will be unrestricted free agents in March, including two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, as well as Matt Feiler and Zach Banner.
Then you have two more Pro Bowlers seeing possibly their last season in Pittsburgh from the skill position groups. Both wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner, second- and third-round picks in 2017, respectively, made the Pro Bowl in 2018. They may be auditioning for their next team this year.
Add to that Bud Dupree, who is playing the 2019 season under the franchise tag, Mike Hilton, who is under a restricted free agent tender this year, and then Cameron Heyward, one of the core members of the organization and the only player with whom they may realistically complete an extension before the start of the season, and that’s a lot of pieces that could be displaced by next year. Quality pieces.
And yet the only one of them that Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com saw as among the top 25 free agents for 2021 was Heyward, who over the past three seasons has been to the Pro Bowl three times and been named a first-team All-Pro twice.
While Smith-Schuster and Dupree were mentioned in a long list of ‘just missed’ players, one can wonder about how at least one other Steeler did not make the top 25. It is admittedly looking like it will be a deep free agent class, though inevitably some will be re-signed, but it potentially includes players like Ronnie Stanley, Jalen Ramsey, and Dak Prescott.
The truth of the matter is that the 2021 free agent class might be more affordable than usual if the salary cap is going to see a regression. If the cap hits the floor of $175 million, then it will revert to pre-2018 levels, and that will take hundreds of millions of dollars in spending power away that could have otherwise gone to unrestricted free agents.
Of course, the hope is that the cap comes in much higher than the agreed-upon floor. I’m hoping beyond hope that they can at least find a way to keep it flat relative to the 2020 salary cap, which is nearly $200 million.
Either way, the Steelers have to find a way to get Heyward signed before he hits free agency. Many of the others named are surely in their last season, unfortunately, simply because there isn’t enough cap space, and that will be a hard crunch for the organization. But that makes this season all the more important.