Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 free agency and draft preview

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) warm up before playing the Denver Broncos at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Leading up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the 2021 NFL Draft in April, I’ll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season. We’ll kick things off with the reigning AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers are faced with a balancing act this offseason. On one hand, their 11-0 start to the 2020 season highlights the many pieces in place on this roster for the Steelers to be a contender next season. However, they enter the offseason as losers of five of their last six games — including a first-round loss to a shorthanded Cleveland Browns team in the postseason — and they are faced with one of the worst cap situations in the NFL. 

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A rebuild, or at the very least a “retooling” period, looms on the horizon. But the question is whether the Steelers will push their perceived championship window in 2021. Pittsburgh’s handling of the next few months should help shine a light on that answer.

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $30,601,664 (fourth-lowest in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 24, 55, 88, 119, 192, 210, 219

Steelers Projected 2021 Offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Ben Roethlisberger 24 / 32 $41.3 million
RB ?
WR Diontae Johnson 61 / 127 $1.2 million
WR Chase Claypool 36 / 127 $1.5 million
WR James Washington 91 / 127 $1.4 million
TE Eric Ebron 61 / 71 $8.5 million
LT ?
LG Kevin Dotson N/A $0.9 million
C ?
RG David DeCastro 16 / 40 $14.3 million
RT Chukwuma Okorafor 34 / 38 $2.4 million 

Starting left tackle, Alejandro Villanueva and running back James Conner will be free agents this offseason with no strong replacement candidates currently on the roster. Benny Snell Jr. would likely be the favorite to start at running back, but this is a position I would expect the Steelers to attempt to improve this offseason if they don’t bring back Conner. Snell ranked 68th out of 70 qualifying running backs in overall grade this past season ahead of only Todd Gurley and Dion Lewis

The Steelers will also be looking for a new center now that Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement is official. Pouncey ranked 31st out of 37 qualifying centers in PFF grade last season. 

Does Ben Roethlisberger have one last run in him?

The biggest question in Pittsburgh this offseason is what happens with Roethlisberger after over 16 years as the team’s starting quarterback. Roethlisberger and the Steelers are expected to meet soon to discuss the quarterback’s future with the team and contract, per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler

Steelers owner Art Rooney II said of Roethlisberger’s contract situation: “I think we’ve been up front with Ben in letting him know that we couldn’t have him back under the current contract. I think he understands we have some work to do there.” That “work” will likely come in the form of pushing salary down the road to subsequent seasons via a signing bonus if Big Ben is to return. 

According to The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly and Ed Bouchette, Roethlisberger wants to play another year and is willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. “I don’t care about my pay at all this year,” Roethlisberger told The Athletic

Pittsburgh boasted one of the best defenses in the league in 2020, but the team's bland and inefficient offense cost them a chance at being true contenders in the postseason. 

Roethlisberger’s play was one of many issues offensively for the Steelers — joined by questionable play-calling, dropped passes in bunches and a nonexistent running game — but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an issue, particularly down the stretch. His 56.1 PFF grade from Week 13 through the playoffs ranked 31st among 32 qualifying quarterbacks. Pittsburgh will need better play from him to repeat as AFC North champions next season if he returns.  

Do the Steelers retain any of their four offensive starters scheduled to hit free agency?

The answer here could very well be no. Staring a difficult cap situation in the face, Pittsburgh will have to be frugal this offseason. That’s before you consider the fact that Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt will soon be commanding top-of-the-market contracts at their respective positions coming off their rookie deals. The money that the retirements of Vance McDonald and Maurkice Pouncey free up will help, but the salary cap still will be a big factor. 

It’s hard to see the Steelers bringing back JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner or Alejandro Villanueva at the price points they will likely command on the open market. Matt Feiler — the 2019 starting right tackle and 2020 starting left guard — seems the likeliest starter to return, and he could theoretically move back to a starting tackle position with the loss of Villanueva. Feiler graded nearly 10 points higher at tackle in 2019 (75.9) than he did at guard last season (66.3). PFF projects his contract to come in at around two years for $12 million

Look for the Steelers to bring back offensive tackle Zach Banner as well. He started the first game of the season at right tackle before going down with a torn ACL. 

How aggressively do the Steelers try to improve their run game? 

It is no secret that the Steelers could not run the football this past year. Their 3.6 average yards per run play was lower than any other team in the NFL. Pittsburgh had neither a dynamic running back who could create something out of nothing nor an offensive line that could create lanes to run through. 

It’s reasonable to expect the Steelers to try to improve in both those areas this offseason to give their offense another dimension. With big-money free agent acquisitions off the table, the draft is where Pittsburgh will have to attack those needs. Luckily for the Steelers, this is a deep offensive line class — both at tackle and along the interior offensive line. 

Potential targets at open spots

Running back: Javonte Williams, Jamaal Williams

Javonte Williams is a favorite of ours at running back in this draft class. He broke the PFF record for broken tackles per rushing attempt this past season at North Carolina (0.48) and projects as a Day 2 pick in this year’s draft. 

Jamaal Williams, meanwhile, has spent the last several years as a second fiddle in Green Bay’s backfield behind Aaron Jones, but he has earned strong overall grades of 74.9 and 76.9 over the last two years. He’s a free agent option with a solid body of work on passing downs who the Steelers could replace Conner with at a cheaper price point. 

Center: Landon Dickerson, Quinn Meinerz

Both of these potential replacements come from the collegiate ranks — I expect the Steelers make a concerted effort to try to add some youth to their offensive line. 

Landon Dickerson is PFF’s top-ranked center heading into the 2021 NFL Draft and has the type of mindset that any offensive line coach would love to work with, paired with legitimate people-moving strength. Quinn Meinerz is a late-process riser out of Division III UW-Whitewater, but he showed he belongs in the NFL with his performance in Mobile at the Senior Bowl. Either would be a welcome addition to Pittsburgh’s offensive line. 

Tackle: Teven Jenkins, Kelvin Beachum

If the Steelers are intent on improving their run game, Teven Jenkins may be the best player available when Pittsburgh is on the clock in the first round. He can single-handedly open running lanes and is coming off a 93.6 run-blocking grade this past season at Oklahoma State.

Kelvin Beachum would be a familiar face after spending his first four seasons in Pittsburgh, including a career year in 2014 when Beachum posted an 82.6 overall grade at left tackle for the Steelers. He has consistently been an above-average pass protector throughout his career. He has familiarity with new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm and wouldn’t cost Pittsburgh nearly as much as retaining Villanueva or targeting another top option in free agency.    

Steelers Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Cameron Heyward 6 / 126 $14.6 million
DI ?
DI Stephon Tuitt 24 / 126 $14.9 million
EDGE T.J. Watt 2 / 109 $10.1 million
EDGE Alex Highsmith 24 / 109 $1.0 million
LB Devin Bush N/A $5.1 million
LB Vince Williams 55 / 83 $7.0 million
CB Joe Haden 44 / 121 $15.6 million
CB Steven Nelson 36 / 121 $14.4 million
CB ?
S Terrell Edmunds 22 / 94 $3.4 million
S Minkah Fitzpatrick 11 / 94 $2.7 million

Pittsburgh will return one of the NFL’s best defenses in 2020 mostly intact, and they’ll be happy to have 2019 first-round pick Devin Bush back in the middle of their defense.

The two question marks as things stand right now are at nose tackle — the position manned by free agent-to-be Tyson Alualu last year — and slot cornerback. Both Cameron Sutton and Mike Hilton are scheduled to be free agents. 

Alex Highsmith is given the nod opposite T.J. Watt at outside linebacker with Bud Dupree all but gone after playing out the 2020 season on a franchise tag before his ACL injury.

The other big situation to monitor is whether the Steelers stick with Haden and Nelson outside or potentially look to cut costs. Moving on from Haden could save the team $7 million against the cap, while releasing Nelson would free up $8.25 million. However, it’s doubtful the Steelers make either of those moves, as Haden and Nelson have both delivered solid play over the past two seasons.  

Can Alex Highsmith replace the production of Bud Dupree?

A large portion of Dupree’s pass-rushing production over the past two seasons has come from a relentless motor combined with the attention that players like Heyward, Tuitt and Watt command along the line. Dupree has recorded a league-high 37 cleanup pressures since the start of the 2019 season despite the time he missed this past year with injury. 

In that sense, he’s an ideal fit in Pittsburgh’s defense — an athletic freak capable of making the most of unblocked and chase-down opportunities as quarterbacks look to escape crashing pockets. The problem is that it’s going to be difficult to justify paying him what he will command in free agency when the Steelers are already invested so heavily along the defensive line. 

Highsmith’s promising play as a rookie only strengthens that notion. You typically don’t see rookie edge defenders win like Highsmith did when called upon last season, particularly late-third-round draft picks at a position that typically takes time to develop. Highsmith’s 16.5% pass-rush win rate led all rookies with at least 100 pass-rushing snaps, and it actually sat several percentage points higher than Dupree’s rate in 2020 (13.7%).  Early indications point to Highsmith being capable of filling that hole. 

Do the Steelers prioritize Mike Hilton or Cam Sutton in free agency?

There seems to be a decent chance that Pittsburgh is only able to bring back one of Hilton or Sutton next season given their cap situation. 

Hilton is the more proven commodity after four consecutive years manning the slot and delivering quality play there. His 85.4 PFF grade when lined up in the slot since 2017 ranks third among 64 qualifiers at the position, though he is coming off the lowest overall grade of his career in 2020. Hilton has consistently been one of the top pass-rushing threats at the position, as well. His 41 quarterback pressures over the last four years are over 10 more than any other cornerback in the league. 

Sutton brings a slightly different profile to the table. He played just 621 defensive snaps across his first three years in the league but took on a larger role in 2020 with 619 snaps this past season alone. His 73.8 coverage grade in that time was higher than any other cornerback on the team, and it came with over 200 snaps played both in the slot and out wide. Sutton graded out better in the slot (86.9 coverage grade) than he did out wide, but he gives some additional versatility that Hilton doesn’t. 

For that reason, Sutton seems like the more logical player to bring back with Haden and Nelson entering the last year on their contracts. He just gives them more versatility.        

Can Devin Bush take the next step in his third season?

The Steelers very clearly missed Bush’s speed in the middle of their defense down the stretch last season, particularly during absences of Vince Williams and Robert Spillane. Still just 22 years old, Bush finds himself looking to make the leap — like many young linebackers in the NFL right now — from an athlete capable of flying around the field and making plays to a reliable, every-down linebacker that consistently finds himself in the right positions. 

Bush showed signs of improvement in that area toward the tail-end of his rookie season and never really got a chance to fully build on that before his season-ending injury last year. If he can take that step after three years in the system, it would help Pittsburgh remain one of the best defenses in the NFL. 

Potential targets at open spots

Nose tackle: Tyson Alualu, Tyler Shelvin 

The days of traditional base defenses are largely dying, but when Pittsburgh did run their base defense, it was Tyson Alualu who played the nose tackle position for the first time in his career. His 212 snaps lined up over or shading the center were over 100 more than any other player on the team, and Alualu earned an impressive 90.9 PFF grade on those snaps. He has been playing the best football of his career over the past few seasons with the Steelers, and you would have to think the 34-year-old has interest in returning at a reasonable price point. 

If Alualu doesn’t return, the monstrous Tyler Shelvin out of LSU could be an option for Pittsburgh in the draft. Listed at 376 pounds, Shelvin has throwback nose tackle size. As you would expect, trying to move him in the run game is a difficult task. If he can keep his weight in check, Shelvin could bring solid value as a rotational piece on the Steelers defensive line. 

Slot CB: Mike Hilton/Cam Sutton, Tre Brown

I don’t think Pittsburgh ends up looking outside to fill this need. It seems likely that they’ll bring back at least one of Mike Hilton or Cameron Sutton. It just remains to be seen which of the two they sign, if not both. 

If Pittsburgh does look externally, that means they’ll be looking to do so for cheap. Tre Brown is a slot option who should be available on Day 3 of the 2021 NFL Draft. He plays bigger than his 5-foot-10, 177-pound frame, and he has allowed just 46% of the passes into his coverage to be completed over the past two years at Oklahoma. 


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