PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers enter 2021 NFL free agency coming off a 12-4 season in 2020 and have 19 unrestricted free agents.
Because of the cap crunch created by the COVID-19-related salary cap drop and their back-loaded contracts, the Steelers don't have much money to use in free agency. Though they've vowed to reduce quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's cap hit for the 2021 season, the Steelers still sit at more than $22 million over the salary cap with less than a month until the new league year opens.
The priority is retaining a few of their defensive pieces, such as cornerbacks Mike Hilton or Cameron Sutton, and finding budget replacements for wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner -- if they exist.
Here's what to expect from the Steelers when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17:
UFA: Josh Dobbs
Game plan: The Steelers expect to have Roethlisberger back, even though they still have to work with him to lower his $41.2 million cap hit. Beyond that, the Steelers have Rudolph and Haskins under contract and need to further develop and evaluate both players to determine if they're viable options to succeed Roethlisberger. Team president Art Rooney II and general manager Kevin Colbert have also suggested the team is looking to add an additional quarterback to the room, either through free agency or the draft.
Game plan: The Steelers have to address the running back position in the draft. Though a fan favorite for his ties to the community and battle with cancer, Conner is unlikely to be re-signed and the Steelers need a new No. 1 back. Snell struggled to consistently fill that role when Conner was injured and neither McFarland nor Samuels have the makeup of a No. 1. The Steelers will be in the market to add a new face, likely through an early-round pick in the draft.
Game plan: With what he'll command on the open market and the Steelers' cap troubles, Smith-Schuster is likely gone, leaving the Steelers with a need to fill the slot position. Restricted free agent Ray-Ray McCloud is an option, as is Johnson, but that's the most glaring need at the position to be filled either through the draft or an inexpensive free agent.
Game plan: Vance McDonald retired, leaving Ebron as the most veteran member of the room. Gentry showed promise before his season-ending knee injury, but this room undoubtedly needs at least one more piece.
Game plan: The offensive line is facing the biggest makeover going into the 2021 season thanks to the retirement of center Maurkice Pouncey and the likely departure of left tackle Villanueva in free agency. The Steelers likely will be able to retain Banner, who's coming off an ACL tear, as an option at left tackle. He could also compete with Okorafor for the right tackle spot again with the backup becoming a versatile substitute. Regardless, the Steelers will have at least one new starter and potentially as many as three. Colbert said the draft class of tackles is deep, which is good news for a team that badly needs one.
Game plan: The Steelers are pretty set at defensive line with the Tuitt and Heyward tandem under contract for the 2021 season. Heyward's cap hit is significant, but the Steelers restructured the deal to lower the hit to just $7.4 million for the 2021 season. If the price is right, the Steelers likely will retain Alualu, an unsung hero who was a mainstay at nose tackle last season.
Game plan: The linebacking corps has starters in place at inside and outside positions, but the group needs depth -- especially at inside linebacker. The Steelers were able to achieve that last season by trading for Williamson just before the deadline and using exclusive rights free agent Marcus Allen as a safety-turned-ILB. Even so, the season-ending injury to Bush coupled with Williams' stint on the COVID-19 list, exposed the lack of depth at the position. Just as it was prior to the 2020 season, adding depth to inside linebacker through free agency or the draft should be a priority. And at outside linebacker, the Steelers likely won't be able to afford Dupree, even on a franchise tag, creating a need for a backup for Highsmith and Watt. Plus, extending Watt is a priority this offseason.
UFA: Hilton, Sutton
Game plan: The Steelers risk losing two major pieces of their cornerback group with Hilton and Sutton hitting free agency. They could find the money to keep one, but it might mean parting with an expensive veteran like Haden or Nelson, who have cap hits of $15.75 million and $14.2 million, respectively, in the final years of their deals. Sutton is a stronger coverage DB, while Hilton was best at stopping the run and blitzing the quarterback. Cutting Nelson would save over $8 million in cap space, while moving on from Haden would save $7 million. Eliminating a veteran DB and retaining either Hilton or Sutton would likely save money and give the position some future security.
Game plan: The Steelers don't figure to have much turnover at safety, but they should look at keeping Dangerfield, who played a major role on special teams and was a captain for the group. A decision on the fifth-year options for starting safeties Fitzpatrick and Edmunds is due at or before May 3. Exercising the option for Fitzpatrick is a no-brainer, but evaluating Edmunds is a little tougher, though he did have two interceptions in 2020.
UFA: Jordan Berry
Game plan: The Steelers already parted with Berry once, and saw that the alternative wasn't the better option. Waitman spent the season on the practice squad and showed promise. He could be in the running for the starting job, but he needs a preseason to truly prove he's capable of taking over. Because of that, Berry has a good chance to return, at least through camp.