Their main issue this offseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers is the handling of their quarterback situation. However, it looks like the Pittsburgh Steelers seem have locked that element down with the reports of Ben Roethlisberger returning for another season. With that roadblock out of the way (outside of restructuring his deal), the Steelers now look towards this year’s free agency.
Headlined by WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, OLB Bud Dupree, RB James Conner, and LT Alejandro Villanueva, this year’s crop of free agents for the Steelers are integral to their future success – but with the impending salary cap crunch, odds of all of these players returning is quite low.
Having torn his ACL against the Baltimore Ravens this past season, Dupree’s next contract most likely will not hold a $15+ million annual value (the perceived value of his deal before his unfortunate injury), which could potentially bring him back into more teams’ checkbooks. For the Steelers, their cap sheet is already crunched enough, so Dupree is likely to depart this offseason, leaving a huge hole opposite T.J. Watt for the team’s pass-rushing.
Smith-Schuster, who is on the record for saying that he would like to finish his career in black and gold, is also a likely departure. Seeing as how the Steelers already have in-house replacements for him in the form of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington, it’s unlikely that Smith-Schuster returns. To add to that, both his on-field and off-field performances have been producing more questions than answers at times, it may be best for both sides to part ways.
Both Conner and Villanueva were integral to the offense’s success, but both also have reasons that they could depart.
Conner’s health and the stable of other backs (Anthony McFarland, Benny Snell Jr., and Jaylen Samuels) behind him make him leaving one of the easier moves to peg. His inability to remain healthy doesn’t help his case to hold down the type of bell-cow role that Pittsburgh needs out of him. While playing for the team in the same state where he played college ball is a nice story, he is as good as gone already.
For Villanueva, his age (33) seems to be the main factor working against him. Seen as an above-average tackle that has helped keep Roethlisberger upright since 2015, he may represent the second offensive lineman to not return for the ‘21 season with the center Maurkice Pouncey already announcing his retirement.
Even with holes that need to be plugged, there still are players that the Steelers need to steer clear of this offseason, and here are two that should not be donning black and gold colors next season.
1. Hunter Henry
An under-the-radar hole that the Steelers could look to address this offseason is their tight end depth, which currently is headlined by Eric Ebron. Heading into the final year of his two-year, $12 million deal, Ebron could become a cap-cutting casualty, which would free up $3.5 million in savings.
Seen as a drop magnet, Ebron’s role in this offense could be replaced by a player like Hunter Henry, who could be leaving the Los Angeles Chargers to find a new team.
With an estimated market value of $10.9 million annually, that large chunk of money to be dedicated to a tight end that has a checkered injury history is a dart that Pittsburgh just cannot afford to throw away at this point. Their cap sheet, which currently has them at just under $8 million over, would need some serious work to fit a high-priced target like Henry in.
Roethlisberger enjoys his dump-off passes to his RBs, and Henry could eat up a ton of targets fulfilling that same role for the Steelers, but they should use this money to aid other roster areas that need more severe help.
2. Yannick Ngakoue
While picturing both Yannick Ngakoue and Watt rushing the passer from edge spots on this defense is terrifying, adding another high-priced player to the defense is not going to help push the Steelers back to being a top-notch Super Bowl threat.
Even with Dupree likely departing, filling the spot opposite Watt would be done better with a cheaper free agent or even a draft pick. While Ngakoue has put up solid numbers in all five seasons of his career, his expected salary is not something that the Steelers can handle.
North of $15 million should be a hard stop for the Steelers in any negotiation, and that holds true here with Ngakoue as well. His production certainly speaks for itself and helps provide compelling evidence that he should be paid in the same stratosphere as the likes of Danielle Hunter and Trey Flowers, but that money should not come from the Steelers.
This team’s biggest defensive needs live in their secondary, with corners Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton, and free safeties Sean Davis and Jordan Dangerfield all hitting the open market this offseason. They would be better suited to add a corner like D.J. Hayden or Xavier Rhodes to play opposite Joe Haden or a free safety like Jaquiski Tartt or Ricardo Allen.
These options would be better uses of the funds that would instead go towards Ngakoue, helping round out more elements of their defense.
The Steelers have a lot of very interesting decisions to make this offseason, just like all teams across the league. While both Henry and Ngakoue would certainly help this team, their expected salaries would hurt this team more in the long run, especially if they decided to push more money further down the road to fit a large contract in this offseason.