It’s hard to believe that the start of the 2021 NFL league year is already now just a little more than two full months away. With that revelation now out of the way, Pro Football Focus is already taking a look ahead at the 2021 free agent signing period and attempting to project where their current list of top 100 soon-to-be unrestricted free agents will wind up signing and for how much. Obviously, several current Pittsburgh Steelers are on that list so with that, let’s take a look at who they have landing where and for how much.
24. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – PFF predicts that Smith-Schuster will sign a four-year, $68 million ($17M APY) contract with the New York Jets during free agency. They go on to project that Smith-Schuster will get $35 million total guaranteed and $22 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Dave’s Take: I suppose Smith-Schuster landing with the jets and potentially reuniting with his former college quarterback Sam Darnold is plausible. It will be tough for the Steelers to re-sign him and especially if the NFL salary cap for 2021 comes in under the 2020 number of $198.2 million. As for Smith-Schuster’s contract value being projected at $17 million per year by PFF, I think that’s very plausible as well. In fact, below is a contract estimation I put together several weeks ago for Smith-Schuster and one structured the way the Steelers like to do deals. My example comes in at $17.5 million over five years with Smith-Schuster getting $17 million fully guaranteed and $20 million overall in his first year. In short, I believe PFF and I are in the ballpark when it comes to Smith-Schuster’s free agent market value.
27. CB Mike Hilton – PFF predicts that Hilton will re-sign with the Steelers and specifically that he will sign a three-year, $12 million ($4M APY) contract with the Steelers. They go on to project that Hilton will get $4 million total/fully guaranteed at signing.
Dave’s Take: I mean, who among us wouldn’t love to see Hilton re-sign with the Steelers and for that amount as well? I know I would. Even so, $4 million per season seems like a huge slap in the face of Hilton. That’s less than what Indianapolis Colts cornerback Kenny Moore is getting now ($8.325M APY). Hilton is more than half the player that Moore is. It’s hard to imagine Hilton signing for that cheap. At worst, I see Hilton getting around $6M APY. Hell, he’s the fourth ranked cornerback on PFF’s 100 list. Sure, he’s a slot cornerback, but in today’s NFL slot cornerbacks play a lot of snaps in games. Hilton is great against the run as well. Personally, I think PFF is way off the mark here. Additionally, I think it will be tough for the Steelers to re-sign Hilton because of what is free agent market value is likely to be.
33. T Alejandro Villanueva – PFF predicts that Villanueva will sign a three-year, $45 million ($15M APY) contract with the Los Angeles Chargers during free agency. They go on to project that Villanueva will get $30 million total guaranteed and $20 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Dave’s Take: I’m a huge Villanueva fan and think he’s criminally underrated when it comes to how most of the Steelers fan base views him. He’s durable, big, has a nasty trap move and is severely underpaid. He’ll also be 33 years of age right after the start of the 2021 NFL season. Assuming Villanueva doesn’t retire after the season, something that I think is very plausible, his market value is likely somewhere between $13 and $15.5 million. Such a value will likely make him too expensive for the Steelers based on what their 2021 salary cap outlook currently is. The Chargers? I suppose that’s as good of a guess as any. Personally, I will not be shocked if Villanueva just retires.
55. OLB Bud Dupree – PFF predicts that Dupree will sign a one-year, $10 million ($10M APY) contract with the Indianapolis Cols during free agency. They go on to project that Dupree will get $7.5 million total/fully guaranteed at signing.
Dave’s Take: With Dupree tearing up his knee in the first part of December, it really hurt him in his wallet at the same time. Dupree was on pace to be the hottest edge-rusher on the free agent market in 2021 and possibly find himself a suitor willing to pay him $18-$20 million per season on a long-term deal. Dupree’s rehab will now go long into the offseason and he might not even be ready for the start of the 2021 regular season. A one-year deal for $10 to $13 million might be the best that Dupree gets from a team so that he can prove himself recovered in 2021 and re-hit free agency again in 2022, or get whatever team that signs him to use the franchise tag on him. He would be foolish to sign a long-term deal at this point. He won’t be back with the Steelers, however as the team drafted outside Alex Highsmith in 2020 and he looks to be the heir apparent to Dupree. The Colts? That sounds like a possible landing spot for sure. It will be interesting to see how long it takes Dupree to find a team willing to pay him roughly half or more of what he was expected to get this coming offseason prior to him suffering his knee injury.
81. RB James Conner – PFF predicts that Conner will sign a three-year, $20 million ($6.66M APY) contract with the New York Jets during free agency. They go on to project that Conner will get $10 million total guaranteed and $8 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Dave’s Take: If Conner can find a team willing to pay him that much money, he should jump on it. Conner had a huge opportunity to make himself some money in 2020 but failed to produce. On top of that, he missed more time in 2020 because of an injury and a few more games due to COVID. He’s yet to prove himself to be a running back that can carry a full load for an entire season and because of that, I have his market value more around the $3 to $4 million per year mark. He’s a good pass protector so he does have that going for him and he can also catch the football out of the backfield. His past durability issues and lack of consistent production, however, won’t help his cause during free agency. I’m not sure where Conner will ultimately land but it’s hard to imagine him re-signing with the Steelers unless he does so for $3 million or less per season.
91. CB Cameron Sutton – – PFF predicts that Sutton will re-sign with the Steelers and specifically that he will sign a one-year, $2.75 million ($2.75 APY) contract with the Steelers. They go on to project that Sutton will get $1.5 million total/fully guaranteed at signing.
Dave’s Take: What a dream scenario that would be for the Steelers and especially if they were to re-sign Hilton for the price that PFF has him projected at. That said, and while Sutton is far from being a proven every-down cornerback in the NFL, he can play on Sundays and potentially even be a starter inside or outside. He’s very versatile and smart. While I don’t think that Sutton will break the break in free agency, I have him projected to get at least $4M APY from some team and maybe as much as $6M APY if he finds one team that loves him and has the money to spend. Even if he doesn’t get that much, he surely should be able to find a team willing to pay him more than $2.75M APY and for more than just one year to boot. If he were to re-sign with the Steelers, you can bet it would be more than just one year because that’s the way the team likes to do business with players making more than the minimum. Heck, Hilton earned $3.259 million in 2020 from the Steelers on a one-year restricted tender. Like Hilton, I hope the Steelers can find a way to re-sign Sutton. If they do find a way, I bet it’s for more than $2.75 million per season.
92. T Matt Feiler – PFF predicts that Feiler will sign a two-year, $12 million ($6M APY) contract with the New York Jets during free agency. They go on to project that Feiler will get $8 million total guaranteed and $5 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Dave’s Take: Feiler made the move to left guard from right tackle in 2020 and that position jump didn’t go as well as most hoped it would. To make matters worse, it appears as though Feiler has now been Wally Pipped by Steelers rookie guard Kevin Dotson while he was out several weeks with a pectoral injury. Quite honestly, Feiler has shown be a better right tackle than a left guard to date. Even so, I’m not sure $6M APY isn’t too rich of a projection for him and that’s even with him projected to be a tackle with his next team. At this point, Dotson is obviously the Steelers future at one of the guard spots and Feiler is almost guaranteed to not be re-signed due to the Steelers 2021 salary cap situation. By the way, what’s the deal with the Jets being the landing spot for so many Steelers? Right now, Feiler feels like a $4M APY player to me. He’ll have a few suitors and at worst land with a team as a backup offensive lineman making more than the minimum. His free agency situation will be a fun one to watch play out.