The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t often have a lot of big-name players hitting the open market, by and large because they are typically able to retain them in-house. But for a variety of reasons, some of which were in their control, some not, they do have a number of notable players who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents come the start of the new league year in March for 2021.
According to ESPN, three of them qualify as being among the top 25 players around the league hitting the open market this year, which means that, at least theoretically, the Steelers should be in line to have one of their best years for the compensatory pick formula, if not their best ever.
The highest-rated player on ESPN’s list is sixth-year outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who is 27 years old and was well on his way to back-to-back seasons of double-digit sacks before he tore his ACL in his 11th game, hitting eight sacks. Ranked seventh, Kevin Seifert writes:
Since the start of the 2019 season, Dupree has more sacks (19.5) than all but seven players in the NFL—and that’s despite missing the final five games of this season because of a torn ACL. A significant injury in a contract year isn’t ideal, but it’s also not the market buster that it once was. Assuming there are not reported complications, a pass-rusher like Dupree is going to find significant interest in the open market.
The next player on the list is left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who at 32 years old ahs played six seasons and is hitting the unrestricted free agent market for the first time in his career. A two-time Pro Bowler, he still has tread on his tires. Checking in at 21, Seifert writes:
Even if his best days are behind him, Villanueva plays a position that is very difficult to replace in free agency. Teams consider it a win to find a serviceable left tackle in free agency, and he certainly qualifies in that regard.
Finally, JuJu Smith-Schuster, everybody’s favorite wide receiver, is the final Steelers to enter the top 25 on ESPN’s free agent list, ranking 25th overall. Although he finished the season with 97 receptions and a career-high nine touchdowns, he had under 850 receiving yards. Seifert writes:
There’s no other way to put it: Smith-Schuster had a confounding contract year. Playing in the Steelers’ short passing game, he caught 97 passes—ninth most in the NFL—but averaging only 8.6 yards per catch. That was the third lowest among wide receivers who caught at least 50 passes in 2020. The performance isn’t likely to change teams’ perceptions of his potential as a downfield receiver, but it could prompt at least a closer look.
These are arguably their three biggest names hitting the open market, but it doesn’t including other significant players (to the Steelers at least) such as James Conner, Matt Fieler, Mike Hilton, and Cameron Sutton. This will be an eventful offseason for sure.