3 Steelers Who Are Franchise Tag Candidates for 2021

Cameron Heyward Pittsburgh Steelers

Getty Cameron Heyward is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in 2021.

Earlier this week the deadline passed for the Pittsburgh Steelers to agree on a long-term contract extension with franchise player Bud Dupree, so Dupree will play for the Steelers this year on a one-year contract. Most likely his salary will be $15.828 million, but he has filed a grievance arguing that he is not a linebacker and therefore should be paid $17.788 million—the amount paid to franchise-tagged defensive ends.

Considering that Pittsburgh has more than its share of key players scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency in 2021, it’s worth looking ahead to next year to review who might be candidates for the tag next year.

1. Cameron Heyward

At the very top of the list is defensive end Cam Heyward, who is entering the last year of a six-year deal that will pay him $9.5 million this season. Heyward is likely the team’s number one priority in terms of a contract extension, but the pandemic—and the associated financial realities—might prevent a deal getting done in 2020.

In that case, the team may designate him as its franchise player while both parties work to negotiate an extension.

2. Bud Dupree

It’s also conceivable that the Steelers could franchise Bud Dupree for a second year in a row, hoping to keep one of the NFL’s top 5 pass rush duos intact for one more season.

If Bud Dupree were to be tagged for a second year in a row he would receive 120 percent of his cap number from this season, minus any performance incentives.

On the other hand, if 2020 third-round draft pick Alex Highsmith develops as expected, Dupree could be expendable—and if he secured a big money contract in free-agency his departure could result in the Steelers getting a compensatory draft choice in 2022.

3. JuJu Smith-Schuster

A third prime candidate for the franchise tag would be wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is in the last year of the rookie deal he signed in 2017. If Smith-Schuster has a bounce-back year with Ben Roethlisberger throwing him the ball, he could be in line for a big pay raise—a pay raise so large that he prices himself out of Pittsburgh.

The franchise tag could be a way to keep him around for one more year while the team takes a longer look at second-year WR Diontae Johnson and rookie Chase Claypool. It’s worth noting, however, that the number of wide receivers who have received second contracts with the Steelers is a short one, with Hines Ward and Antonio Brown being the obvious exceptions.

Rest of the Best

There are other possibilities, though. For example, the Steelers might wish to extend left tackle Alejandro Villanueva by one year if young tackles Chukwuma Okorafor and/or Zach Banner haven’t developed to their satisfaction—or if Zach Banner leaves in free agency.

Another possibility is running back James Conner, who could be a candidate if he has an exceptionally strong year and the Steelers don’t want to commit big money to the RB1 position long-term.

Yet one more potential candidate is guard/tackle Matt Feiler, who might remain an integral piece of the offensive line, particularly if young players like fourth-round draft pick Kevin Dotson don’t demonstrate expected development.

Finally, one big factor that could influence which player the Steelers choose, if any, is the salary assigned to each individual position. We don’t know what those numbers are yet, and it’s conceivable that those salaries could be impacted by the financial realities of the pandemic.

Anyway, the salaries for the various positions differ widely. For example, the price tag for a running back with the non-exclusive franchise tag in 2020 is $10.278 million; for a wide receiver it’s $17.865 million; and for an offensive lineman it’s $14.781 million. A list of all of the 2020 non-exclusive franchise tag salaries is available in the 2020 NFL free agency glossary.

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