The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 season is now in the books, and it ended in spectacular fashion—though the wrong kind of spectacular—in a dismal postseason defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, sending them into an early offseason mode after going 12-4 in the regular season and winning the AFC North for the first time in three years.
After setting a franchise record by opening the year on an 11-game winning streak, they followed that up by losing three games in a row, going 1-4 in the final five games, with only a 17-point comeback staving off a five-game slide. But all the issues they had in the regular season showed up in the postseason that resulted in their early exit.
The only thing facing them now as they head into 2021 is more questions, and right now, they lack answers. What will Ben Roethlisberger do, and what will they do with him? What will the salary cap look like? How many free agents are they going to lose? Who could they possibly afford to retain? Who might they part ways with—not just on the roster, but also on the coaching staff?
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: Which if any of the Steelers’ most high-profile free agents will they be able to keep?
The 2021 new league year is now fast approaching. A great amount of change will have already taken place by then, and even more will follow. Rosters will look more different from one year to the next this time around than is usual due to the $15 million-plus salary cap shortfall.
The Steelers will feel this about as much as any other team, with some major players hitting unrestricted free agency, including starters JuJu Smith-Schuster, Alejandro Villanueva, Bud Dupree, James Conner, and Mike Hilton.
These are the five players I believe are the most significant and high-profile that Pittsburgh is due to lose in terms of notoriety and importance. Of these five, which of them, if any, will they be able to keep under contract entering the 2021 season? What are the odds of them retaining more than one?
I don’t believe that either Villanueva or Dupree are serious financial options. Paying a 33-year-old left tackle $15 million per season is not ideal, though neither is the alternative. With the high degree of probability of Dupree taking a one-year deal, the cap hit would be inflexible. There’s also virtually no chance the team will be re-signing Conner.
That leaves, in my evaluation, Smith-Schuster and Hilton as the two potential options the Steelers could retain among their most high-profile pending free agents. Can they manage to keep one of them? Could they even swing both, and if so, what would it take to do that?