More than a dozen Pittsburgh Steelers players are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in 2021, so the organization has some big decisions coming up in terms of which players to try to retain going forward. Those pending unrestricted free agents include Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, all among the team’s top 5 UFA’s entering 2021.
There are also a number of key players who could become unrestricted free agents further down the road, including two that NFL.com Senior Analyst Gil Brandt has on his list of Twelve Players Whose Teams Should Never Let Them Leave—players mentioned alongside the likes of Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, Los Angeles Rams DT Aaron Donald, and Indianapolis Colts OG Quenton Nelson.
OLB T.J. Watt
The first of the two Steelers on Brandt’s list is outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who, along with Bud Dupree, forms one of the top 5 edge defender duos in the NFL. Brandt notes that Watt has had 34.5 sacks over the course of his first three seasons, more than 20 percent of his team’s total (162) during that time frame.
The Steelers still have time to work out a contract extension for Watt, which will likely come sometime before the start of the 2021 season.
According to OvertheCap.com, Watt is scheduled to earn $1,727,565 in salary in 2020 and $10,089,000 next season, as the Steelers have already picked up the fifth year option on the rookie contract he signed in 2017. Watt was Pittsburgh’s first-round draft pick that year, selected 30th overall, part of the team’s top-ranked 2017 draft class.
But a new contract for Watt means Bud Dupree will almost certainly leave as a free agent after the 2020 season, as the Steelers won’t be able to afford both. This helps explain why the Steelers drafted Alex Highsmith in the third round of this year’s draft, giving Highsmith a year to grow into a starting role.
Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick
The other Steeler on Brandt’s list is safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Brandt reminds us that he initially questioned the Steelers’ decision to trade a first-round pick to the Miami Dolphins for Fitzpatrick in September of last year, “but nobody is questioning the move now,” Brandt writes, noting that Fitzpatrick is the impact player at safety that Pittsburgh has lacked since Troy Polamalu’s heyday.
“It’s exciting to think how much better Fitzpatrick can be in his first full season in this defense after being forced to learn on the fly last year,” Brandt concludes.
As for Fitzpatrick’s contract status, the Steelers still have plenty of time before working out an extension. According to OvertheCap.com, Fitzpatrick—recently named to a Top 25 Under-25 NFL players list—is scheduled to earn $1,975,252 this season and $2,722,878 in 2021. Next spring the Steelers will have the opportunity to pick up Fitzpatrick’s fifth-year option, which would bind him to the team through 2022 at a cost of somewhere north of $10 million for the 2022 season.
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