PITTSBURGH -- The next six weeks are among the slowest on the NFL calendar, but not for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who must prioritize their upcoming free agents now that they’ve signed their draft class.
Using last summer as a roadmap, the Steelers can identify their top remaining free agents and start negotiating this month, with hopes of a deal by training camp. That was the case with defensive end Cam Heyward, who landed a six-year, $59.5-million extension with the club. After Heyward, the team focused on left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who didn’t take an extension offer from the team and eventually signed with Jacksonville in free agency.
Based on the importance of linemen to the Steelers’ identity, expect DeCastro to fill the Heyward role this year.
Then they can circle back with Bell, who will command high-level running back money. But his recovery from a knee injury could prompt both sides to take their time. The Steelers will want to make sure he’s fully recovered, and Bell might want one last statement before he signs.
For DeCastro, now an All-Pro guard, expect him to seek something close to Kelechi Osemele's five-year, $58.5-million deal with Oakland. With Osemele’s average of $11.7 million per year assuming he plays the deal out, that’s $3-plus million more than the next closest guards, Arizona’s Mike Iupati and Philadelphia’s Brandon Brooks at $8 million apiece. It is unclear if the Steelers would be willing to hit the $12 million mark, but DeCastro is more accomplished than Osemele, so both sides should be able to find a sweet spot.
The Steelers likely have somewhere between $1 and $2 million in cap space, so they must structure DeCastro’s deal with thoughtful accounting. Providing a hefty signing bonus spread out over five years, with a smaller base salary in year one, could do the job.
After DeCastro and Bell, the Steelers must prioritize a group of young players (receiver Markus Wheaton, linebacker Jarvis Jones) and veterans (linebackers Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison and Arthur Moats).
Timmons’ enormous $15.1 cap hit in 2016 has not been reworked. The Steelers could let Timmons play out that number or sign him to a short-term extension. That’s a difficult call on a 30-year-old player for a team looking to get younger, but they still value his leadership and versatility.
The Steelers haven’t restructured any deals this offseason after reworking seven of them a year ago. That means either the Steelers have decided to show restraint instead of kicking money down the line or they simply haven’t needed the cap space yet. Last year’s mega-extension for Ben Roethlisberger contributed to at least a few of those moves.
Timmons very well could be playing out a contract year without a new deal in place. The same goes for Wheaton, who peaked late in 2015 but could use this year as a No. 2 receiver to get his money up.
As for Jones, the Steelers will almost certainly let his 2016 performance determine his future. They declined the fifth-year option, so the spotlight rests squarely on the former first-round pick.