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: Assuming that free agency falls the way we expect, with the Steelers losing a number of high-profile players and signing nobody of significance, how will the anticipation of a good cache of compensatory draft picks in 2022 shape their views on trading up in 2021?
This question is a bit of a mouthful to get out, I admit, but I expect you get the idea. The Steelers have, among others, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Alejandro Villanueva, Bud Dupree, and James Conner set to become free agents. All four of them are capable of drawing mid-round draft picks, with the possibility of even a couple of third-round picks in the form of compensation if signed.
With the rising price tags, it’s somewhat unlikely that the Steelers actually sign anybody in free agency whose average annual salary even meets the compensatory formula threshold—the way Stefen Wisniewski did not last year.
So let’s say, best-case scenario, the Steelers will have on their hands an extra two third-round picks, and maybe another fourth and a fifth, which is an exceptional haul. We could even say it’s one third, a fourth, and two fifths, if we want to be really conservative.
Either way, that’s a lot of extra picks, and they can be traded now. And the Steelers have acted before in anticipation of draft picks. In 2013, they traded a future third (in 2014) for a fourth-round pick, which they used to draft Shamarko Thomas, anticipating that they would get a third-round pick as compensation for losing Mike Wallace (which is what happened).
So the question is, if they lose Smith-Schuster and Villanueva to deals that fetch third-rounders (which can be reasonably predicted) just based on the contract itself), how much more likely does this make the Steelers to use that ammunition to make a trade up this year—perhaps trading future picks, for example?