An offseason of major change is coming for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one that will see a number of key players from recent seasons hit the open market as free agents, potentially leaving the Steel City for higher pay.
In total, nearly 20 players are set to hit the open market, opening up a number of additional holes on the Steelers’ roster, making for an intriguing offseason as the Steelers continue to retool on the fly.
Of the nearly 20 players that are poised to be free agents, just five landed inside Pro Football Focus’s top 200 free agency rankings, with all but one landing outside the top 100, which should tell you all you need to know about how PFF feels about the talent in Pittsburgh.
As of now, Steelers names like wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, right guard Trai Turner, cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon and Joe Haden, and safety Terrell Edmunds are inside PFF’s top 200, though not in that order.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Smith-Schuster is the first crack PFF’s rankings, coming in at No. 42 overall, sandwiched in between New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston and Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku.
Listing strengths for Smith-Schuster such as his physicality, hands and age (just turned 25), Pro Football Focus projects the physical slot receiver to receive another one-year, $8 million deal on the open market, largely due to his injury-plagued 2021 season, but also due to the lack of production in recent seasons while being hamstrung by a Steelers’ offense that just didn’t push the football down the field.
“Smith-Schuster reportedly turned down offers from the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs in order to stay with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who selected him in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft,” PFF writes. “Smith-Schuster was once believed to be supplanting Antonio Brown as the best wide receiver in Pittsburgh, but even with Brown no longer in town, that still isn’t the case. However, Smith-Schuster plays a very valuable role as a sure-handed slot receiver who a quarterback can rely on in critical situations. He ranks in the top 15 in third-down receptions (85) among wide receivers since he was drafted in 2017. That said, he will once again likely be facing one-year flier offers after missing much of the 2021 season to injury.
“Smith-Schuster’s career arc has largely been a function of the offenses that he’s played on, putting up big numbers on the “Killer B” offenses early in his career before seeing his numbers take a nosedive on dysfunctional Steelers offenses since 2019. He won’t transform an offense, but he can be a nice complementary piece on an offense that already has legitimate outside weapons.”
Though he is coming off of a tough contract year once again, Smith-Schuster will certainly have a market much more lucrative than a one-year, $8 million deal this time around, considering the NFL is further removed from the cap crunch due to the pandemic, as well as the toughness and determination the young receiver showed battling back from a season-ending shoulder injury to play in the Steelers’ Wild Card loss to the Chiefs.
Aside from Smith-Schuster, PFF ranked Haden, Turner, Edmunds and Witherspoon well outside the top 100. Haden cracked the rankings at No. 110 overall and is projected to receive a one-year, $5 million (fully guaranteed) contract on the open market entering his age-33 season, which makes it much more viable to bring him back to Pittsburgh at that price.
Turner landed at No. 119 overall and is projected to once again be a starting guard in the NFL, though it remains to be seen how good of a starting guard he can be. According to PFF’s contract projections, Turner could land somewhere in the three-year, $18.75 million range, with $10 million guaranteed, which equals out to $6.25 million per year.
That number seems a bit high for a guard who’s best days are well behind him. He’s still relatively young for the position and could serve as a true leader along a rebuilding offensive line, but that’s a tall task for the Steelers to lock themselves into a contract of that size and length for a guy like Turner.
Edmunds quickly followed Turner in the rankings, landing at No. 120 overall, with PFF projecting Edmunds to be a marginal starting safety moving forward.
“Edmunds has been a solid starter on the back end for the Pittsburgh Steelers after becoming a surprise first-round pick in 2018, but the Steelers declined to exercise his $6.75 million fifth-year option for the 2022 season,” PFF writes. “Edmunds earned his second consecutive coverage grade above 70.0 but also his second straight run-defense grade below 60.0 with a career-low 34.0.
“A deal resembling Baltimore Ravens safety Chuck Clark’s three-year, $15.3 million contract from the 2021 offseason looks fitting, but Edmunds could push for something closer to Jacksonville Jaguars safety Rayshawn Jenkins’ four-year, $35 million deal.”
For what it’s worth, PFF projects Edmunds to land a three-year, $19.5 million ($6.5m per year) deal on the open market, with $10.75 million guaranteed. That feels like reasonable rate for the Steelers, should they choose to bring back the dependable, durable safety to continue pairing him with Minkah Fitzpatrick, though I’m sure the Steelers would prefer to get that average yearly salary around the $4-5 million range.
Finally, Witherspoon cracks the rankings at No. 124 overall, with PFF projecting the veteran cornerback who came on rather strong down the stretch in Pittsburgh to be an outside cornerback who can play multiple schemes.
“Witherspoon, yet again, played few snaps over the course of the season following a trade from the Seattle Seahawks to the Steelers but had three 85.0-plus graded games over the final five contests of the regular season,” PFF writes. “Witherspoon didn’t reach the 400 snap mark in each of the last two seasons but posted 80.9 and 78.8 coverage grades, respectively, and moves quite well for a 6-foot-2 cornerback. A nearly identical one-year flier would probably make sense again.”
PFF currently projects Witherspoon to sign a one-year, $4 million fully guaranteed deal, which should make it rather quick and painless for the Steelers to bring him back for 2022.