The Pittsburgh Steelers now have now seemingly set their initial 53-man roster set for Week 1 of 2020 season so now is as good of a time as any to look at the players currently included in that group who are set to become free agents of some sorts in 2021.
Unrestricted Free Agents:
OLB Bud Dupree – Dupree is playing under the franchise tag in 2020 after failing to sign a long-term deal with the Steelers by the July 15 deadline. Barring Dupree having some sort of crazy season that would include him being among the league leaders in sacks, it’s almost certain that he won’t be back in 2021. The only reasonable way to prevent Dupree from leaving after the 2020 season would include the Steelers using the franchise tag on him and with the way their 2021 cap situation looks, it’s hard to imagine that happening. Root for Dupree to have a great 2020 season so he gets top dollar in free agency and thus provides the Steelers with maximum compensatory draft pick value.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – The Steele have just a few more days to get Smith-Schuster locked up long-term ahead of the 2020 regular season getting underway and there’s really no signs currently that will happen unless the wide receiver were to take a very under-the-market deal. Assuming Smith-Schuster starts the 2020 regular season without an extension, odds will then increase that he might leave via free agency in March. Using the franchise tag on Smith-Schuster next offseason might be the only way to keep away from unrestricted free agency. That said, the Steelers will be cap crunched next February and March and that will make using the franchise tag on any player tough. The Steelers don’t have much of a history of paying top-of-the-market price for a wide receiver on his second contract. Don’t bet on Smith-Schuster being back in 2021.
T Alejandro Villanueva – Alejandro Villanueva is already criminally underpaid as he’s set to earn just $5 million in 2020. Unless the Steelers sign him to an extension in the next few days, it’s hard to imagine Villanueva being back in 2021 and especially if he continues to play at the level he’s been playing at the last few seasons. He would be foolish to sign another low-level deal as an experienced starting left tackle. For all we know, Villanueva might be ready to get on with his life’s work in 2021. We’ll see what happens in these next few days and if not extended, be ready for 2020 to be Villanueva’s last season in Pittsburgh.
CB Mike Hilton – Hilton is yet another player that currently sits in the same kind of boat as Smith-Schuster and Villanueva. Hilton is one of the top slot cornerbacks in the NFL and if he continues to hold that distinction throughout the 2020 season, he’ll be awfully hard to retain due to the Steelers 2021 salary cap situation. He might be able to find a team willing to pay him $7 million or more per season if he hits unrestricted free agency in March, which is highly likely to happen unless the NFL salary cap at least stays flat in 2021. Hilton figures to be part of a huge roster turnover next offseason if he doesn’t sign an extension by Monday night.
G Matt Feiler – Go ahead and load Feiler up in that same boat about to set sail in 2021 with Smith-Schuster, Villanueva, and Hilton all in it. If Feiler plays well at left guard in 2020, he’ll be looking to get paid a lot more than the $3.259 million that he and Hilton will both make this season as restricted free agents. The Steelers drafted Kevin Dotson this year and odds are good he’ll be a starter in 2021 at left guard. Unless the Steelers plan to re-sign Feiler and move him back to right tackle in 2021, he’ll highly likely be playing elsewhere. This team will be cap crunched next March and that will result in the Steelers having to let their best unrestricted free agents ride off into the sunset.
RB James Conner – Sorry, Conner fans, but he’s likely going to be following most of the others on this list out of Pittsburgh next March. If Conner has a rebound 2020 season similar to his 2018 season, his market value will likely be too rich for the Steelers blood. He’s a great kid and is productive when he’s healthy. Even so, he’ll want to get paid next offseason and there figures to be another team out there willing to do so. Running backs in the NFL are mostly fungible.
CB Cameron Sutton – Of all the scheduled 2021 unrestricted free agents on this list, Sutton maybe has the best chance of being back in 2021. Even so, that chance is still low and especially if he plays a lot in 2020. He’s not a starter but is a snap away from being one. An average 2020 season might make him consider taking a one-year deal to remain in Pittsburgh. That said, I would not go out and buy a Sutton jersey right now. Like most of you, I hope they keep him, but the green of free agency might make that near impossible.
DE Chris Wormley – The Steelers surprisingly traded a fifth-round pick for Wormley during the offseason and they did so even with him wearing a price tag of $2.133 million in 2020. Wormley is set to be backup in 2020 and thus he’s not expected to play more than 400 snaps. If that’s what happens, Wormley will have minimum value entering free agency. If the Steelers ultimately re-sign Wormley next offseason, it will figure to be on a one or two-year deal for close to the minimum. Personally, I would bet against that happening.
DE Tyson Alualu – I love me some Alualu and it will now be interesting to see how he plays in 2020 at nose tackle. He is 33 years of age, however, so there’s a good chance 2020 might be it for him. If it’s not the end, the only way the Steelers can have Alualu back in 2021 is on a minimum salary benefit deal. They can’t afford to pay him more than the minimum and that’s the long and short of it.
T Zach Banner – It sounds like Banner might wind up being the Steelers starting right tackle in Week 1 and thus his job to lose at that point. Banner bet on himself this year by signing a one-year contract for less than $2 million. If he keeps the starting job and plays well, he’ll be looking to cash in come March. Will the Steelers be able to afford him? Banner might need to take a heavy discount to stay in Pittsburgh as he could be an attractive free agent with a nice 2020 season.
S Jordan Dangerfield – Dangerfield continues to hang in the NFL because of his special teams play. He was even voted special teams captain for the 2020 season and that says a lot. Even so, the only way Dangerfield is likely re-signed in 2021 is if he takes the minimum.
S Sean Davis – The Steelers welcomed Davis back with open arms over the weekend after the Washington Football team terminated his contract. Davis will now be a backup with the Steelers in 2020 and will look to see if he can increase his value. Should Davis ultimately re-sign with the Steelers after the 2020 season, odds are good it would need to be a minimum salary benefit deal. He might try to see if he can get slightly more from another team to be a backup.
QB Joshua Dobbs – Might Dobbs be the Steelers new Charlie Batch, meaning playing for the minimum for several seasons? It’s hard to say for sure but with that, it’s hard to imagine Dobbs increasing his value much of any in 2020 unless disaster strikes the Steelers like it did in 2019. If Dobbs re-signs in 2021, it will likely have to be for the minimum.
P Dustin Colquitt – The Steelers new punter is almost as old as Ben Roethlisberger. If he punts well in 2020, he might be back again in 2021 but only on another one-year contract for the minimum. Let’s see if he can last a full season first.
Restricted Free Agents:
OLB Olasunkanmi Adeniyi – How much playing time will Adeniyi get in 2020 with rookie outside linebacker Alex Highsmith now in the fold? We’ll soon start finding out. Adeniyi will need play exceptionally good in whatever action he does get in 2020 if he hopes the Steelers will use an original round restricted tender on him. Even an original round restricted tender might be too high for the Steelers depending on what the 2021 salary cap number winds up being. Adeniyi might need to re-sign for the minimum if he’s to stay in Pittsburgh in 2021.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents:
ILB Marcus Allen – Allen is now listed as a linebacker after previously being listed as a safety. Whatever position he is, the Steelers can easily retain Allen with a minimum exclusive rights tender next offseason if they choose to do so. Let’s see if he survives the entire season on the Steelers 53-man roster first.
ILB Robert Spillane – Spillane might turn out to be the Steelers best special teams player in 2020. If that’s what ultimately happens, he’ll be easy to retain after with a minimum exclusive rights tender during the offseason.
C/G J.C. Hassenauer – it was a huge surprise to see Hassenauer make the Steelers 53-man roster this year and him doing so is probably due to guard David DeCastro starting the 2020 season with a lower body injury. Will Hassenauer last the entire season on the 53-man roster? We’ll see. If he does, like all exclusive rights free agents, he’ll be easy to retain with a minimum one-year tender during the offseason.
WR Ray-Ray McCloud – McCloud made the 53-man roster this year and will likely function as returner in some capacity to start the regular season. As long as McCloud holds on to the ball-ball, he should be able to stick on the 53-man roster. If he does last the full season, McCloud will be easily retained with a minimum exclusive rights free agent tender if the Steelers want him back in 2021.