Steelers 2021 Free Agency Primer: Unrestricted Free Agents – Defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers offseason is now officially underway as of Sunday night and between now and the start of the 2021 league year in March the team will need to make several decisions regarding the players scheduled to become free agents. In this post, we’ll look at the ten Steelers defensive players currently scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at the start of the new league year.

Unrestricted free agent (UFA): Any player with four or more accrued seasons and an expired contract; free to negotiate and sign with any team.

OLB Bud Dupree – Dupree, who received the franchise tag from the Steelers in 2020, played extremely well in the 11 games that he participated in before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 12. In those 11 games, Dupree, the Steelers former first-draft pick, registered 31 total tackles, eight tackles for loss, eight sacks, 15 quarterback hits, two defensed passes and two forced fumbles in the 608 defensive snaps that he played. He also logged 32 snaps on special teams before suffering his knee injury. Prior to getting injured, Dupree was well on his way to cashing in as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. His free agent market value was expected to be at least $18 million per season and maybe even as high as $20 million. Now that he is coming off a serious knee injury that required surgery, Dupree’s free agent market value has obviously taken a huge hit. On top of that, Dupree will be pushing it to be fully recovered by the time the 2021 regular season gets underway. As the offseason progresses, Dupree might have to settle for a one-year free agent deal for somewhere around $10 million and then try to cash in even larger in 2022. Unless Dupree is willing to re-sign with the Steelers for a lot less than $10 million for one season, it’s hard to imagine him being back in Pittsburgh in 2021 due mainly to the team’s salary cap situation and the fact that rookie outside linebacker Alex Highsmith is seemingly already tabbed to be his replacement. It’s sad that his 2020 season ended the way it did.

CB Mike Hilton – A former undrafted free agent, Hilton has been quite the find for the Steelers. The slot cornerback is now poised to finally cash in as an unrestricted free agent this coming offseason after four strong seasons with the Steelers. In 2020, Hilton was limited to playing in just 12 regular season games due to a shoulder injury. He also played in the Steelers lone playoff game against the Cleveland Browns as well. In total, Hilton logged 463 regular season snaps on defense and 33 more on special teams. In that playing time, Hilton registered 50 total tackles, eight tackles for loss, three sacks, five quarterback hits, seven passes defensed and three interceptions. He was also credited with one special teams tackle during the regular season. In the Steelers lone playoff game, Hilton played 44 total defensive snaps and registered two total tackles. Hilton’s free agent market value should be at least $7 million. He’s also expected to sign a free agent contract that has a length of at least three years. At a minimum, Hilton should pocket around $10 million total in 2021 and maybe even more. He’s sure to have suitors in free agency if the Steelers can’t re-sign him prior to the middle of March. The Steelers obviously would like to have Hilton back in 2021 but their salary situation will make it incredibly challenging to re-sign him and especially if his value winds u being higher than $7 million. Should the NFL’s 2021 salary cap number come in around last year’s number of $198.2 million, there’s a chance the Steelers might be able to re-sign Hilton. He’ll obviously be a big defensive loss for the Steelers should he ultimately sign elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent. It will be interesting to see what he ultimately gets in the way of a yearly average this offseason.

CB Cameron Sutton – Sutton, the Steelers third-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft out of Tennessee, played extensively in 2020. He logged 548 regular season snaps and 186 more on special teams. He played outside and inside throughout the regular season and even started six games and the lone playoff game the team had. In total during the regular season, Sutton recorded 29 total tackles on defense. He also had one tackle for loss, one sack, one interception, eight passes defensed, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery to go along with one special teams tackle. In the Steelers playoff loss to the Browns, Sutton started and played all 67 defensive snaps and 19 more on special teams. He registered two total tackles and a pass defensed in that playoff contest as well. While Sutton showed that he can be an every-down player in the NFL in 2020, his free agent market value this offseason will likely be around $4 million or so. Pro Football Focus, however, has Suttons free agent market value less than $3 million despite considering him one their top 100 soon-to-be unrestricted free agents. Depending on how the league’s salary cap number shakes out, the Steelers might have a shot at re-signing Sutton before the start of free agency in March and especially if his market value is $ million or less per season. It would really stink for the Steelers to lose both Hilton and Sutton as unrestricted free agents this offseason. That said, it’s very plausible that such a scenario could ultimately play out like that. The team, however, should have a better shot at retaining Sutton than Hilton.

DT Tyson Alualu – Alualu played his fourth season with the Steelers in 2020 and he played well. He primarily played at nose tackle this season and that position switch served him well and especially considering the big shoes he had to fill after the team lost defensive tackle Javon Hargrave in free agency last offseason. While Alualu did miss one regular season game due to injury, a rarity for him, he still played 448 total defensive snaps and another 50 on special teams. He also played another 48 defensive snaps in the Steelers playoff loss to the Browns in addition to 8 special teams snaps. For the regular season, Alualu recorded 39 total tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, five quarterback hits, five defensed passes and a forced fumble. Add to that three total tackles in the Steelers lone playoff game. Alualu looked like he was 33 going on 23 several times throughout the season and especially when lined up inside over a guard or center. Assuming he does not retire, Alualu probably has one more season left in him and especially if he can decrease his snap total amount in 2021. The Steelers could use him in 2021 to help buy some time while rookie defensive tackle Carlos Davis continues to develop in his second season. Alualu can also still give quality occasional relief as a defensive end as well if re-signed. Alualu’s free agent market value should be steep at all In fact, he just might settle for one-year, qualifying contract. Such a contract would pay Alualu a max of $2.4625 million in 2021 yet carry a max cap charge of just 1.2125 million. Such a deal would be great for both parties and allow Alualu to finish out his NFL career with the Steelers.

DE Chris Wormley – The Steelers acquired Wormley from the Baltimore Ravens via an offseason trade and part of that deal was inheriting his $2.133 million salary for 2020. Wormley missed three games in his first season with the Steelers due to a knee injury and that played a big part in him logging just 148 regular season defensive snaps and just 23 special teams snaps. He did play in the Steelers playoff loss to the Browns and logged 16 defensive snaps and four more on special teams in that contest. In total, Wormley registered just eight total regular season tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack, and three quarterback hits. Those stats obviously don’t come close to matching what the Steelers paid him for the 2020 season. Should the Steelers decide they want Wormley back in 2021, the only way that happens is if the defensive end signs for the minimum. He just might be willing to do that because he’s not likely to receive much interest from other teams if he hits unrestricted free agency in March. The Steelers need to try to keep at least one of Alualu or Wormley this offseason the cheap while also spending a draft pick on a young defensive end that fits their scheme. Re-signing Wormley for the minimum isn’t a sexy idea, but it might be the best option for the Steelers with them not expected to do much in the way of outside free agent shopping this offseason. Don’t be surprised if he’s re-signed.

ILB Avery Williamson – After the Steelers lost starting inside linebacker Devin Bush for the year to a knee injury in Week 6, they proceeded to go on and acquire Williamson from the New York Jets via a trade right before the deadline for depth purposes. The veteran inside linebacker went on to see action in eight regular season games as well as the team’s lone playoff game. He started four times due to injury/COVID related issues the team had at the inside linebacker position. Williamson logged 309 regular season defensive snaps with the Steelers and 51 more on special teams. In those eight games he registered 52 total tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, and two quarterback hits. In the Steelers playoff loss to the Browns, Williamson logged 13 total defensive snaps and one special teams snap. He failed to register any stats in that postseason contest, however. Williamson was a stop-gap player for the Steelers due to Bush going down injured. He’ll be 29 in March and might find a team in free agency willing to pay him more than the minimum to be a one or two-year starter for them. In summation, it’s hard to imagine Williamson re-signing with the Steelers this offseason.

S Jordan Dangerfield – Dangerfield has been a mainstay in Pittsburgh for several seasons now and mainly because of his play on special teams. He was the Steelers special teams captain in 2020 and with good reason as he was credited with 10 tackles as a core player for coordinator Danny Smith. He played 293 total special teams snaps during the regular season and 24 more in the team’s playoff loss to the Browns. Diffusively, Dangerfield logged just 20 snaps for the Steelers in 2020 and most of those game in goal-line packages. With Dangerfield being 30 years of age and special teams ace only, the Steelers might could re-sign him this offseason to a one-year, veteran salary benefit contract so that he has a reduced cap charge. If ultimately re-signed, Dangerfield would instantly become the odds-on favorite to be the Steelers special team captain again in 2021.

S Sean Davis – After the Washington Football Team released Davis in early September, the Steelers instantly signed him to one-year contract right before the start of the regular season. The Steelers obviously had familiarity with Davis due to him playing his first seasons with the Steelers after being selected by them in the second-round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Davis dressed and played in every game for the Steelers in 2020 and that includes the playoff game against the Browns. He starred the Week 17 game against the Browns as well. In total, Davis logged 57 regular season snaps on defense and 211 more on special teams. In regular season action, Davis registered 10 total tackles and a pass defensed. On special teams he was credited with wo total tackles and a fumble recovery. He did not register any stats in the 13 special teams snaps he logged in the playoff game against the Browns. If for some reason the Steelers decide they would like to have Davis back in 2021 competing for a roster spot, they would only re-sign him to a one-year minimum salary deal and with no guarantees he would make the 53-man roster. He’s not a great special teams player for a safety and is a huge liability on defense to boot. It’s not overly surprising that Washington cut him so quickly despite signing him to a two-year contract during the offseason.

OLB Cassius Marsh – The Steelers signed Marsh off the practice of the Indianapolis Colts in early December after Dupree was lost for the remainder of the year to a knee injury. Including the Steelers playoff loss to the Browns, Marsh played 57 total defensive snaps and 20 special teams snaps in the two games that he dressed for. He missed the team’s Week 17 game against the Browns due to him being on the Reserve/COVID-19 list as a close contact case. In those two games, Marsh registered four total tackles with two of them coming on special teams. Marsh is a below average pass rusher and a poor defender against the run as an outside linebacker. His NFL lone value at this point is on special teams. The Steelers will likely pass on re-signing Marsh. If, however, they do wind u re-0signing the former fourth-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks in 2014 NFL Draft, it would be to a one-year, veteran salary benefit contract. The Steelers only added him in 2020 due to injuries on the outside linebacker position and because he has some level of special teams value.

OLB Jayrone Elliott – Elliott was brought back late in training camp and then started the 2020 regular season on the Steelers practice squad. He remained on the 16-man unit most of the season and was elevated twice for two games late in October. He was ultimately signed from the Steelers practice squad to the team’s active roster in early November and finished out the season the 53-man unit. He was inactive for three regular season games and for the team’s playoff game against the Browns as well. during the regular season, Elliot logged 36 defensive snaps and 106 more on special teams. In that regular season playing time, Elliott registered four total tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hit. Additionally, the Steelers backup outside linebacker was credited with three total special teams tackles. Elliott is unlikely to be re-signed by the Steelers as he doesn’t have much value as a special teams player and is just a fringe backup outside linebacker on defense. At best, he’s an adequate practice squad player.

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