Roster turnover is a fact of life in the NFL. But with more than a few core players set to hit unrestricted free agency in 2021, the Pittsburgh Steelers will soon be facing big decisions in terms of which UFA’s the organization will try to retain going forward.
At the top of the list is DL Cam Heyward, who is entering the last year of a six-year $59.2 million contract he signed in 2015. In a recent interview with Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, Heyward indicated that the Steelers have expressed interest in extending his time in Pittsburgh, but there have been no discussions of late. This shouldn’t be a surprise, especially in light of the current level of uncertainty surrounding the 2021 salary cap, and the fact that the Steelers typically extend contracts shortly before the start of the season.
But Heyward admitted to Kaboly that he has been thinking about his future. “Man, I hate talking about it in the past tense like I am already gone, but I have to be ready for the reality if that comes about,” Heyward said. “I love being a Pittsburgh Steeler, but if my time is up, my time is up.”
Yet Heyward may be the UFA who is most likely to get re-signed, not only because he is one of the best players in the NFL at his position, but because he is perhaps the only player on this list for which the Steelers don’t have a potential replacement in the pipeline.
In March the Steelers placed the franchise tag on OLB Bud Dupree, keeping him in Pittsburgh at a cost of $15.8 million for 2020. General Manager Kevin Colbert has indicated that the Steelers want to keep Dupree in Pittsburgh for the rest of his career, but cost considerations make it unlikely that he will be back in 2021, as Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt is ahead of him in the OLB pecking order.
If Dupree leaves in free agency, the Steelers hope that Alex Highsmith, selected in the third round of the 2020 draft, will be ready to step in as Dupree’s replacement in the starting lineup.
Meanwhile, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is entering the final year of the rookie contract he signed in 2017. No doubt the Steelers would like to keep Smith-Schuster around beyond 2020, but at what cost? Sure, Smith-Schuster’s performance will be a big part of the equation, but the play of the other young wide receivers on the team will also be a determining factor.
Many believe that Diontae Johnson is poised for a ‘breakout’ season, and could become the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver. There are also high hopes for rookie Chase Claypool, not to mention third-year WR James Washington, who started to come into his own during the second half of 2019.
Another core player on offense who is entering the last year of his rookie deal is RB James Conner. Much like Smith-Schuster, Conner had a ‘down’ year in 2019, rushing for only 464 yards in the wake of a Pro Bowl season in 2018.
Again, the team’s chances of re-signing Conner depend in part on his own performance, but also whether the Steelers feel they have another starting-caliber running back already on the team. To date, second-year RB Benny Snell Jr. and third-year runner Jaylen Samuels have looked more like complementary pieces than starters, but rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. hasn’t yet had the chance to show what he can do.
Last but not least, Steelers’ left tackle Alejandro Villanueva heads into 2020 on the last year of a four-year $24 million extension he signed in 2017. Considering that he’s 32 years old and starts at a position that typically commands a premium price, it seems likely that the Steelers will move in another direction in 2021.
No doubt the Steelers hope that one of the young tackles already on the roster shows he is worthy of the job going forward. Candidates include Chukwuma Okafor and Zach Banner, though the latter is also scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency in 2021.
Follow the Heavy on Steelers Facebook page for the latest breaking news, rumors and content!