NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal has unveiled his list of the top 101 NFL free agents once the new league year begins March 17th. Six Pittsburgh Steelers made his list with Bud Dupree topping the charts, nearly cracking the top ten. Despite an ACL that cut his 2020 season short, Rosenthal has him ranked as the 12th best pending free agent. And really, now the 11th best free agent now that JJ Watt has inked a deal with the Arizona Cardinals.
In slotting him at the 12th spot, Rosenthal writes of Dupree:
“A late-season torn ACL hurts Dupree’s value, but he’s versatile and strong enough to make a three-year contract worth it.”
“Value” is the biggest question for Dupree. His play has been stellar the last two seasons, breaking out in 2019 and building upon that in 2020. Staying healthy and not dogged by nagging injuries allowed him to play with more power and become a potent pass rusher, notching 19.5 sacks across 27 starts. How the league views him coming off the torn ACL is his main concern. There’s still a chance he takes a one-year, prove-it deal in order to rebuild his value for 2022. For Steelers’ purposes, when Dupree signs and how much he gets will determine what comp pick they receive for the 2022 draft.
Up next on Rosenthal’s list is JuJu Smith-Schuster coming in at the #25 spot.
“He’s known for his social media, yet JuJu’s game is decidedly old school. A perfect No. 2 receiver who can do all the dirty work with incredible toughness over the middle.”
A fair description overall. Smith-Schuster became something of a safety valve in the Steelers’ offense, catching a whopping 97 passes for a paltry 8.6 yards per reception. That’s the lowest yards per catch of any WR with 90+ grabs in NFL history. He served as Ben Roethlisberger’s go-to target on third down and in the red zone, finding the end zone nine times. Smith-Schuster is expected to earn upwards of $16-17 million. It’s a price the Steelers could pay but it’s unclear if they’re willing to.
Mike Hilton just missed the top 50 at #51 and is potentially one of the most underrated free agents on this list. Rosenthal writes:
“With flair for days, the Steelers slot corner would bring energy and versatility to any team that knows how to use him.”
Hilton is one of the league’s top corners, an elite run defender and run blitzer. Few DBs have made as many plays in opposing backfields as Hilton has the last four seasons. He’ll angle to net a contract that meets or exceeds Kenny Moore’s four-year, $36 million extension he signed in June of 2019. Pittsburgh could re-sign Hilton but bringing back Cam Sutton seems like the more likely option.
Coming in at #79 is left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
“It looks like the Steelers are ready to move on from Villanueva, which is a red flag because the Steelers are nothing if not loyal.”
79 feels a touch low for Villanueva, slotted behind the likes of Duke Johnson, Austin Reiter, and Cordarrelle Patterson. It’s not often a tenured, quality left tackle hits the open market. But Villanueva’s run defense is average to below and he does turn 33 in September. Still, he figures to get paid handsomely, probably by a team other than Pittsburgh.
A pleasant surprise came in at #88 with NT Tyson Alualu.
“It’s pretty rare for a former first-round nose tackle to have his best season at 33 years old, but Alualu made himself some money with the Steelers.”
Steelers’ fans should hope Alualu is the best-kept secret on the market, keeping his price tag down. The odds seem good Alualu re-ups with the Steelers, maybe even before free agency officially starts, on a cheap two-year deal. As Rosenthal says, Alualu is playing some of his best ball over the final couple years of his career.
Finally, James Conner squeaks his way onto the list at #97.
“The Pittsburgh offensive line didn’t help Conner’s decisiveness over the last two seasons.”
A fair point but Conner’s lengthy injury history is what’s working against him more than anything else. Still, he’s a complete back who can run, catch, and block. The Steelers seem destined to let him test and sign elsewhere in free agency.
Steelers’ free agents not making this list include CB Cam Sutton and OL Matt Feiler. Other lower level free agents include DE Chris Wormley, OT Zach Banner, and ILB Avery Williamson. The top free agent on Rosenthal’s list is Cowboys’ QB Dak Prescott though Dallas is expected to franchise tag him for the second straight season.