Steelers 2021 Free Agency Primer: Unrestricted Free Agents – Offense

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 nine Steelers offensive 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.

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – Smith-Schuster, the Steelers former second-round draft pick out of USC, figures to be the team’s highest-rated unrestricted free agent this offseason should he remained unsigned come March 17. In 2020, Smith-Schuster caught 97 passes for 831 yards and nine touchdowns in the 16 regular season games. In the lone playoff game against the Browns, he caught another 13 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown. His average depth of target in 2020 was just 5.8 yards, however. During the regular season, Smith-Schuster played 923 total offensive snaps and another 87 against the Cleveland Browns in the team’s playoff game. Smith-Schuster did a great of getting tough yards after the catch in 2020. He was also a more than adequate blocker. Unlike in his first three seasons, Smith-Schuster didn’t have many catches more than 15 yards down the field in 2020. He did, however, produce 16 explosive play receptions in 2020 and led the Steelers in that stat. The Steelers obviously would like to have Smith-Schuster back and the young wide receiver wants to return as well. Making that happen will be tough, however, and especially if the league’s 2021 salary cap comes in closer to the agreed to floor of $175 million than to 2020’s amount of $198.2. Smith-Schuster’s free agent market value this offseason should be no less than $16 million per season, when compared to several other younger wide receivers around the league now on their second contracts. At that amount, he’ll likely expect to get at least $20 million in 2021 money. Obviously, Smith-Schuster’s free agent market value could and likely will come in higher than $17 million. The Steelers don’t have a long history of paying wide receivers top 10 money and that’s essentially what it will likely take to re-sign Smith-Schuster. Obviously, the Steelers have two months now to figure something out with Smith-Schuster. If he makes it to March 17, he’ll likely sign with another team. The 2021 salary cap number will play a large role in whether or not the Steelers ultimately re-sign Smith-Schuster.

RB James Conner – Conner, the Steelers former third-round draft pick out of Pittsburgh, led the team in rushing in 2020 with 721 yards and six touchdowns on 169 total carries during the regular season. He also caught 35 passes for another 215 yards in the 561 regular season snaps that he played. In the playoff loss to the Browns, however, Conner managed just 37 yards and a touchdown on 11 total carries and caught five passes for another 30 yards. He had just five runs of 20 or more yards on the season as well. He missed three regular season games in 2020 with two being a result of him testing positive for COVID-19, the other game he missed was due to a quad injury. For the most part, Conner was a reliable pass protector in 2020 but with that said, he was far from perfect in that phase of his game. The Steelers run game has been nonexistent for several seasons now and that, along with Conner having durability concerns, will more than likely lead to the running back being allowed to test unrestricted free agency in March. As for Conner’s free agent market, value, some already have pegged a little more than $6 million per season, which in my opinion is a few million too high. While Conner probably hopes to return to the Steelers in 2021, the team probably is ready to move on from him, unless they gain get him to re-sign for less than $3 million per season. He should have at least a few teams interested in his services once March 17 rolls around.

T Alejandro Villanueva – 2020 was the sixth full season for Villanueva on the Steelers 53-man roster and once again he started every game and played every offensive snap, 1,099 during the season and 90 more in the playoff loss to the Browns. He also logged 69 regular season snaps on special teams and three more in the Super Wild Card game loss. While Villanueva only allowed two sacks in 2020, he did allow 29 hurries and 15 quarterback hurries in total. He also incurred six penalties in 2020 with one of those coming in the team’s lone playoff game. While Villanueva is a more than adequate pass blocking NFL left tackle, he had his struggles in 2020 against a few shorter edge rushers and a few that have speed around the corner. Even so, Villanueva has become quite the tackle technician over the years and he’s very underrated overall. The weakest part of Villanueva’s play as a tackle is his run blocking, which has been the case his entire career. He does not move well out in space and mainly because of his size and build. He lacks quickness off the ball. While Villanueva doesn’t necessarily have a lot of left tackle mileage on him for his age, he will turn 33 just after the start of the 2021 regular season just the same. The Steelers got a steal when it comes to Villanueva’s career in Pittsburgh as not only was he an undrafted free agent, but he also only averaged $6 million per season in earnings in the contract he just finished out. He started 90 regular season games in a row for the Steelers dating back to 2015 and that’s a streak that Steeles fans might not see broken for a long, long time. Assuming Villanueva doesn’t retire, which is quite plausible, his free agent market value could be around $15 million per season. The Steelers certainly won’t be willing to compete with those sorts of figures due to their 2021 cap limitations as well as Villanueva’s age. He should have quite a bit of interest in him on a short deal come March should he ultimately decide he wants to continue his NFL career.

T Matt Feiler – after playing right tackle for the Steelers the previous two seasons, Feiler, a former undrafted free agent, made the move to left guard in 2020. Feiler started 13 regular seasons for the Steelers in 2020 at left guard in addition to the team’s lone playoff game against the Cleveland Browns. He played 849 regular season snaps on offense and 57 more on special teams. Against the Browns in the Super wild Card game, Feiler played all 90 offensive snaps. The three regular season games that Feiler missed in 2020 were due to a pectoral injury that forced him to the team’s Reserve/Injured list. In total, and including the Steelers lone playoff game, Feiler allowed two sacks on the season, four quarterback hits and 11 hurries. Feiler’s pass blocking at left guard in 2020 was fine for the most part. His run blocking, however, much like it was with most members of the Steelers offensive line during the 2020 season, was below average. Feiler wasn’t effectively great on the move when asked to pull to the right. All told, Feiler was still perhaps the Steelers best run blocking offensive lineman in 2020, which was not a high bar to clear. With rookie guard Kevin Dotson looking like he’ll be the Steelers starting left guard in 2021, Feiler might need to find a new team in free agency. On top of that, Feiler might still be a better right tackle than he is a left guard. Feiler is bound to get some interest in free agency and especially due to his position flexibility. At worst, Feiler’s free agent market value should be around $6 million season. The Steelers, due their 2021 cap situation, are unlikely to re-sign Feiler and thus he’s likely played his last snap in the black and gold.

T Zach Banner – Banner, a former fourth-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts, won the starting right tackle spot in training camo in 2020 as he beat out fellow tackle Chukwuma Okorafor for the job. Unfortunately for Banner, he didn’t even make through the Steelers first regular season game of 2020 as he tore the ACL in his right knee in the second half of that contest and thus was lost for the remainder of the year. In total, Banner played just 59 offensive snaps in 2020 and four more on special teams. Banner’s knee injury should be fully recovered come the start of NFL training camps. That said, he won’t be fully healthy come the start of free agency in March. Because of that, it’s very plausible that Banner will be re-signed by the Steelers well before free agency starts to either a one or two-year deal. Whatever his market value the two sides agree upon, his cap charge in 2021 should be very affordable and then he’ll get a chance to be a starter again during the summer. Banner probably best fits as a right tackle with the Steelers and should that be the case and should he ultimately be re-signed, Okorafor would likely flip over to left tackle spot, if the team doesn’t re-sign Villanueva. The Steelers are likely to draft a tackle this offseason as well. As we sit here in the middle of January, it will be quite surprising if Banner isn’t re-signed 60 days from now. They want him back in 2021 and he wants to be back as well.

T Jerald Hawkins – Hawkins, who was originally drafted by the Steelers in the fourth-round of the 2016 NFL Draft out of LSU, was signed off the practice squad of the Houston Texans after Banner was lost for the year in Week 1 to a knee injury. He went on to dress for 13 regular season games as well as the Steelers lone playoff game and saw time as an extra blocker on most of 76 offensive plays he was on the field for. He also logged five special teams snaps during the regular season. He played just two snaps in the team’s lone playoff game as well. Hawkins was targeted once during the season near the goal-line and failed to make the catch. Should the Steelers choose to re-sign Hawkins during the offseason, something I don’t believe should happen, his minimum salary would be $920,000. He is a fringe backup tackle at best and just an average run blocker.

P Jordan Berry – Berry, who previously was the Steelers punter for the previous five seasons heading into 2020, failed to make the team’s roster this year out of training camp. Instead, the Steelers chose to sign veteran punter Dustin Colquitt just before the start of the regular season. Five games into the 2020 regular season, however, the Steelers had seen enough bad out of Colquitt, so they parted ways with him and brought back Berry. Berry punted 57 times for the Steelers in the regular season for 2,609 yards with a long of 62 yards. He averaged 45.8 yards per punt and registered a net average of 40.5. 23 of his punts were inside the opponent’s 20-yardline. He didn’t have any punts blocked and 22 of his punts were fair caught. Berry also was the holder for kickers Chris Boswell and Mathew Wright on field goals and extra point attempts. In the Steelers lone playoff game, Berry punted three times for 41.7 yard average and a net of 32.3 yards. His long punt against the Browns was 59 yards, however. One of his three punts landed inside the Browns 20-yard-line. One of the three resulted in a touchback. The fact that the Steelers attempted to move on from Berry prior to the 2020 regular season beginning says a lot. If the team wants him back in 2021 to compete in training camp, that will only happen if Berry agrees to a minimum salary contract. If Berry is ultimately re-signed, you can count on him having plenty of competition throughout the offseason via a cheap free agent, draft pick, or undrafted free agent. Long story, short, Berry has likely punted his last football for the Steelers.

QB Joshua Dobbs – Dobbs, who was originally drafted by the Steelers in the fourth-round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Tennessee, was claimed off waivers by the team just prior to the start of the 2020 regular season. He then proceeded to be the Steelers third-string quarterback all season and was inactive for all but one game, the finale against the Cleveland Browns. While Dobbs did play in that Week 17 game against the Browns, it was only to the tune of nine total snaps. He completed four of five pass attempts in that contest for a whopping 2 yards and rushed twice for 20 yards. In his first two seasons with the Steelers, Dobbs completed six of his 12 total pass attempts for 43 yards. He played 30 offensive snaps in total. Last season with the Jaguars, Dobbs didn’t play a snap. If the Steelers want Dobbs back in 2021 to battle for a spot on the quarterback depth chart, they can probably re-sign him to a veteran salary benefit contract, formerly known as the minimum salary benefit contract. Such a deal means the Steelers would give Dobbs a base salary of $990,000 and a signing bonus up to $137,500. Dobbs’ cap charge on such a deal would be $850,000 plus whatever the signing bonus amount given is. It’s hard to tell which direction the Steelers might go with Dobbs right now and especially with the future of starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger still up the air. Dobbs will hit free agency if not re-signed prior to the start of the new league year in March. The Steelers could obviously wind up drafting another quarterback this year and if that were to happen, the odds of Dobbs being back in 2021 would drop dramatically. If something were to happen between the Steelers and Dobbs, him being re-signed would likely occur sometime in March.

G Danny Isidora – The Steelers signed Isidora off the practice of the Kansas City Chiefs in the middle of December due to injuries on the team’s offensive line. While Isidora did dress for the Steelers final three regular season games, the fifth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in the 2017 NFL Draft never logged any playing time. In the Steelers playoff game against the Browns, Isidora was inactive. In all likelihood, Isidora will not be re-signed. If, however, the Steelers do wind up re-signing him, they would only likely do so for the minimum with no guarantees he makes the 2021 roster. It’s not a big deal either way because Isidora is a fringe backup guard at this point. The Steelers only added him in 2020 due to injuries on their offensive line at the guard position. To date, Isidora has logged a total of 490 offensive snaps in four seasons.

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