It’s never too early to look ahead to the next season from a roster building standpoint for General Managers and capologists in the NFL, especially the Pittsburgh Steelers, who went on a bit of a spending spree early in free agency this offseason, but have some big contracts looming for a pair of young building blocks on either side of the football.
Good news is the Steelers are in great shape overall. According to OverTheCap.com, the Steelers are projected to have roughly $63.161 million in effective cap space in 2023, as the salary cap is projected to rise to $225 million. That will help the Steelers lock up All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and emerging wide receiver Diontae Johnson to lucrative contracts this summer, especially after ESPN’s Kevin Seifert identified the Steelers’ pair as two of the top 20 way-too-early free agents in 2023 Friday.
Fitzpatrick, just 25 years old and heading into his fifth season in the NFL and fourth with the Steelers, is in line for a big payday, especially after earning back-to-back All-Pro honors in 2019 and 2020, heading to the Pro Bowl both seasons, as well.
According to Seifert, Fitzpatrick is the No. 11 free agent ahead of the 2023 offseason, though it’s all but written in stone that the Steelers and Fitzpatrick will come to terms on a longterm extension to keep him in the Steel City for a long time.
So many plays late in the Steelers' win easily forgotten with how bonkers the ending was. How about Minkah Fitzpatrick's breakup against Brown.
If he doesn't punch this ball out, Ravens have it at Pittsburgh's 48 with 25 seconds and two TOs. They win the game right there. pic.twitter.com/Wmz89h4pdS
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) January 9, 2022
“Fitzpatrick has already been traded once — after his rookie season with the Dolphins — but from the start has been one of the NFL’s top playmakers in the back end,” Seifert writes. “He has scored four defensive touchdowns in his career, tied for the most in the NFL over that span, and his 13 interceptions rank tied for No. 8.”
There’s no denying how great Fitzpatrick is, even if he didn’t quite have the turnover numbers in 2021 as the Steelers’ defense took a step backwards due to injuries and key departures. While there was the belief early on that Fitzpatrick would reset the safety market, that’s unlikely at this point, though he should be one of the highest paid in the league at the position.
Los Angeles Chargers’ star safety Derwin James is also expected to hit free agency at the same time as Fitzpatrick, though he’s likely in for an extension as well, meaning the NFL could see some big contracts thrown around at safety. Fitzpatrick might not get close to Seattle’s $17.5 million per year for Jamal Adams, but he should get at least $15 million per year, falling in line with Denver’s Justin Simmons inside the top 5 at the position.
Has Minkah Fitzpatrick leveled up again? pic.twitter.com/qIwuV08SMd
— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) September 17, 2021
As for Johnson, who is just 26 years old, he’s entering the final year of his rookie deal as a non-first round draft pick, meaning the Steelers have to work out something this summer or risk letting him hit the market. That becomes tricky for Pittsburgh as the wide receiver market has exploded thanks to the trades and subsequent new contracts for Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill.
That said, Johnson — who Seifert ranked as the No. 20 free agent ahead of the 2023 offseason — should be able to get around $16 million per season in a new extension, assuming the Steelers want to give him a second contract, which would currently put him inside the top 20 at the position, and above Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp, which should be Johnson’s target area.
However, names like Deebo Samuel, AJ Brown, DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, and Hunter Renfrow are also pending free agents, making it difficult for the Steelers to really sell Johnson on top 20 WR money with the position exploding in per-year salaries overall.
DIONTAE JOHNSON GETS LOOSE 🔥pic.twitter.com/AGayCMazoY
— PFF PIT Steelers (@PFF_Steelers) October 31, 2021
“If nothing else, Johnson has proved to be a consistent target for a middling offense. He has improved with each season in Pittsburgh, and his 254 career catches are the most by any receiver in the 2019 draft class,” Seifert writes. “It helps that he has been targeted 407 times over that period, largely on short passes that have led to an average of 10.9 yards per catch. His drop percentage of 5.4% is worrisome, but he has a chance to vault into a higher tier in 2022.”
Though he struggled with drops down the stretch in 2021, there’s no denying how good Johnson is overall, and how important he is to the Steelers’ offense on the boundary. Locking him up to a longterm deal would give the Steelers — who historically are good at finding wide receivers in the draft — a key building block to work with on a rebuilding offense overall post-Ben Roethlisberger.
Diontae Johnson is NICE pic.twitter.com/sGwtNWGNx6
— PFF (@PFF) January 11, 2021