PITTSBURGH -- With 25 free agents and a salary cap reduced by COVID-19, the Pittsburgh Steelers are facing a herculean task this offseason. Add in the 34 returning veterans that for now push the Steelers over the salary cap by almost $30 million before free agency even begins, and the task becomes even more daunting.
Pittsburgh hasn't had this many unrestricted free agents in the past five seasons, according to the list published by the NFL at the beginning of free agency. Prior to 2021, the most the Steelers had was 18 in 2016. Since then, though, the Steelers have gone into free agency with an average of just eight.
"I'm not really worried about the number, because it's a business," safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said in his final interview of the season. "The only thing I know I am going to miss is the relationships, going out there and playing with those guys.
"We put in a lot of effort in the offseason and during the season. That is the thing you will miss the most. It is what it is. It's part of the job. I have been on three different teams and every single team is extremely different looking after the season."
This might be the worst offseason to have 19 unrestricted free agents plus two restricted free agents and three exclusive-rights free agents.
Once expected to continue to climb above $200 million, the salary cap will drop this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The floor can't go below $175 million, but even that creates major problems for a franchise saddled with a $41.2 million salary-cap hit for its soon-to-be 39-year-old quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers will start by evaluating their rostered personnel and their own free agents first.
"There's uncertainty in every season," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "You just comb through it page by page. ... There's just so many meetings ahead of us, discussions that are ahead of us in regards to those things. The salary-cap ramifications and the things we can do to get within compliance there.
"There's just a lot of work ahead. But that's not unusual. Maybe there are some unusual specific challenges, but just in general, it is challenging. The depths of it is challenging. So, there is a lot of work ahead."
These four will be their toughest decisions.
OLB Bud Dupree: Gone
The Steelers got another year of Dupree's services by placing the franchise tag on him. While that is an option for another season, the Steelers have even less cap space and can't devote the $15 million or so that it would cost to keep him for another season.
Dupree, 27, had another stellar season playing opposite T.J. Watt with eight sacks and two forced fumbles before he tore his ACL against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 12. He had surgery soon after, and he should be ready to go by next season. With back-to-back standout seasons, even one cut short by injury, Dupree should fetch a healthy contract on the open market -- one the Steelers won't match.
They can't afford him, and they also have a replacement for Dupree already on the roster. Rookie Alex Highsmith showed growth and improvement in his six-game stint filling in for Dupree. The plan was always to develop Highsmith as their next pass-rusher, but they had to rely on the third-round pick out of Charlotte more than expected in his first season.
Highsmith's play, while still raw at times, showed enough promise with two sacks and an interception to make it easier to let Dupree walk in free agency. But even if the Steelers have a replacement for Dupree on the field, they'll have to find someone to fill his role as a glue guy, connecting with everyone in the locker room, regardless of position.
OT Al Villanueva: Gone
Villanueva has been a mainstay on the line since starting the final 10 games of the 2015 season. He hasn't missed a start since. But at 32, Villaneuva is another piece of an aging line that needs to get younger. With the run game struggles and forced quick release times by Roethlisberger, it was evident during the season that Villanueva, a Pro Bowl selection in 2017 and 2018, wasn't playing up to his usual standard.
The Steelers have a couple of options at tackle who are younger and cheaper, and it likely will be an area the team targets with an early pick in the draft. Matt Feiler, 28, a right tackle turned guard, will hit free agency in March, but rookie Kevin Dotson's emergence likely pushes Feiler out the door. Zach Banner, 27, is also due to be a free agent, but coming off an ACL tear, he'll be a cheaper option to bring back.
Banner won the right tackle job over Chuks Okorafor in camp, but Okorafor held the role after Banner's Week 1 injury. Okorafor could slide over to left tackle while Banner takes over right tackle, or vice versa. The Steelers could also draft a left tackle. Regardless, bringing back Villanueva won't be in the plans.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster: Likely gone
It's not a given that Smith-Schuster, 24, is out the door. Yes, he's a free agent and could very well go to a bigger market in New York or Los Angeles. But he was a reliable target for the Steelers this season, even if he wasn't doing it with flashy plays. He's morphed from a home-run hitter to a hard-nosed receiver capable of making combat catches and picking up extra yards after contact.
Publicly, Smith-Schuster has proclaimed that he wants to remain in Pittsburgh, saying as much immediately after the wild-card loss and posting the same thing on social media in the week that followed. Staying in Pittsburgh allows Smith-Schuster to keep being himself -- something he's often said is important to him.
There was a time when Smith-Schuster would have priced himself out of Pittsburgh, but his market could cool because of the distractions and negative attention he received for the logo dancing and comments about the Browns before the wild-card game.
The Steelers don't have much wiggle room with their cap, and they don't often give receivers second contracts, but Smith-Schuster is an important part of their offense and was indispensable as a third-down threat.
CB Cam Sutton: Gone -- unless ...
As the roster stands, there isn't a need to spend big money on Mike Hilton or Sutton, two of the Steelers' under-the-radar MVPs. Each versatile defensive back played a crucial role this season, and in a perfect world the Steelers would find the money to bring both back in 2021. But Hilton, 26, and Sutton, 25, likely played their way into big paydays with three interceptions and three sacks and an interception for Hilton and a sack and eight passes defensed for Sutton.
As a nickel, Hilton's market may not be as lucrative as it could be if he were a traditional corner, but he should still get paid more than the Steelers can afford.
Sutton was most valuable when he was filling in for injured cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steve Nelson. Though Haden and Nelson were each solid in the secondary, they carry a cap charge of $15.5 million and $14.4 million, respectively, next season. Those are hefty price tags, especially for Haden, who will turn 32 in April.
The Steelers could save money and secure the future by moving on from Haden and signing Sutton before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in March. Either Sutton becomes the full-time starter in place of Haden, or 2019 third-round pick Justin Layne becomes the starter and Sutton moves into the nickelback role vacated by Hilton.