Which Players Will The Steelers Keep For a Super Bowl Push?
By: Dave Stewart
We made it to the next milepost in the NFL offseason calendar. As of February 23, teams are allowed to begin applying the franchise or transition tags to their would-be free agents. Soon, we will have a clearer picture of who is going to be available when the free-agent signing period officially kicks off.
Every team has critical decisions to make in order to form their 2021 roster. The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of many teams coming to grips with the turnover that free agency brings.
Let’s talk about a few crucial free agents and whether or not they are likely to be dressed in black and gold this year.
OLB Bud Dupree
Steeler fans have had a complicated relationship with Dupree since he arrived in Pittsburgh. Many viewed him as an underachiever in his first four seasons in Pittsburgh and questioned whether it was worth it for the team to exercise his fifth-year option. The Steelers chose to do so and were rewarded with Dupree’s breakout performance, in which he netted 11.5 sacks and forced four fumbles while recovering two. On pace for similar stats in 2020 before his injury, Dupree became a fearsome edge rusher in Pittsburgh. While the Steelers used the franchise tag to retain him last season, it appears the past season was his last in Pittsburgh. Look for Dupree to find new surroundings as one the prize pass rushers on the market.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
Coming off his fourth year in the Steeler organization, at just 24 years old, Smith-Schuster has a lot of career left in front of him. The de facto veteran presence in the Steelers’ youthful receiving room, he has been unable to match his career 2018 season, when he worked opposite Antonio Brown. While JuJu has failed to thrive as the top target in the offense, he did catch 97 passes in 2020, nine of them for touchdowns. Over 300 receptions in four seasons, combined with his youth, will make him a desirable option for teams looking to shore up their offense with a dynamic pass catcher. Like Dupree, Smith-Schuster is all but certain to suit up for a new team in 2021.
RB James Conner
A true local product, Conner was born in western Pennsylvania and starred at the University of Pittsburgh, and he is a charismatic cancer survivor. A fan favorite, he has shouldered the majority of running back work since Le’Veon Bell elected not to report to training camp in 2018. Now, his rookie contract is ending and his next contract will be significant. Conner, like Smith-Schuster, has been unable to match his 2018 performance in the two seasons since. Still, expect him to elicit multiple offers in free agency, pricing him out of the Steelers’ future plans.
OT Alejandro Villanueva
A rock at left tackle for the Steelers over the past six years, Villanueva has yet to allow an injury to keep him out of a game. A more dependable tackle is hard to find. However, he struggled a bit this season and was one of many challenges on the offensive line. The Steelers’ line appears to be geared towards a massive overhaul this off-season, as center Maurkice Pouncey announced his retirement. Getting younger is the aim and that means Villanueva is no longer in the cards. Given his durability, he should see a handsome contract offer in free agency lure him away from the Steel City.
OT Zach Banner
Though he has been acquired by four different teams in his NFL career, Banner has actually seen the field for only two. 2020 was to be the year that he finally worked himself into the starting lineup. Unfortunately for both Banner and the organization, he went down in week one with a season-ending knee injury. Unlike the players previously mentioned, Banner seems likely to return to the Steelers on a short-term, incentive-laden contract and be given the opportunity to replace Villanueva at left tackle. Should the experiment prove a success, another new deal should be on the way for Banner in a couple of years, allowing him to be a long-term answer anchoring the line.
CB Mike Hilton
An undrafted free agent, Hilton has matured into a reliable defensive back for Pittsburgh. Primarily playing as a slot corner, he has also become a threat blitzing from his cornerback position. He has 9.5 sacks in his four seasons as a Steeler, along with 23 quarterback hits. As a restricted free agent in 2020, the team placed a second-round tender on him, and ultimately re-signed him to a one-year deal. This year, he is an unrestricted free agent, able to sell his services to the highest bidder. Amid speculation that veteran, Joe Haden, could become a salary-cap casualty, it is in the Steeler’s best interest to make a serious run at retaining Hilton. It would make sense to see him return and take over a starting corner role.
Nothing will be confirmed until after the signing period begins on March 17, but the Steelers will be bound by little cap room and are not expected to have the flexibility to make a splash in the market. A playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns seems to have slammed shut the championship window in Pittsburgh. A low-cost rebuild figures to be the right course for the immediate future, with the Steelers hanging onto younger, less expensive players supplemented with identifying talent in the draft.