The Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the most volatile teams in football in 2020.
Pittsburgh stormed out to an 11-0 start, overwhelming opponents with a suffocating pass rush and balanced offensive game. The Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs appeared to be a rung above all other teams in the league, though Pittsburgh looked even more well-rounded than Kansas City.
Of course, things fell apart down the stretch. The Steelers limped to a 1-4 finish in the final five weeks of the regular season. Ben Roethlisberger had a hard time moving the ball through the air, though his receivers' strange case of the drops hardly helped matters. Pittsburgh also lost some key starters on the defensive side of the ball.
The collapse was complete after the Steelers were dominated by their AFC North rival, the Cleveland Browns, in the Wild Card Round. Cleveland jumped out to a 28-0 lead and never looked back, putting a humiliating stamp on the Steelers' season.
Things will only grow more challenging in the next couple months. Roethlisberger's contract makes for a number of complications at the quarterback position. The Steelers have a number of impact players set to be free agents, but lack the cap space to make big splashes. In fact, Pittsburgh's cap situation is so dire the Steelers will almost certainly have to cut players to save money against the cap.
So, how can the Steelers improve the roster with practically zero cap space? Here are three early targets in free agency for Pittsburgh heading into the 2021 offseason, two of which are internal options.
3. Zach Banner
Banner played in just one game before undergoing season-ending knee surgery. But that could actually simplify things for the Steelers.
The former USC offensive tackle won one of the outside jobs during training camp. He started in the team's Week 1 win over the New York Giants, and Pittsburgh could still regard Banner as being a starter heading into 2021.
Again, the Steelers cannot truly afford to sign any impact free agents given they are already over $34 million in the red, per Over The Cap. Yet, they desperately need to preserve depth in the trenches.
Fellow offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva will be an unrestricted free agent, and the two-time Pro Bowler figures to attract attention from a number of teams. Matt Feiler is also a free agent and could prove tough to re-sign this spring.
Banner has the benefit of being someone who already won one of the Steelers' tackle jobs before, so there is some faith in his capabilities. Additionally, the injury could mitigate interest on the open market, which could be a good thing for the Steelers.
2. Mike Hilton
Hilton has played a more prominent role in Pittsburgh's secondary in recent years, and he plays an imperative role as the nickelback.
Will the Steelers be able to re-sign him this offseason?
Hilton was a tremendous playmaker in 2020. He had a career-high three interceptions and also notched seven passes defended. The 26-year-old can play up in the box to stop the run or blitz off the edge, finishing the season with 3.0 sacks and eight tackles for a loss.
Pittsburgh might have to cut Joe Haden for salary relief. Yes, Haden was a Pro Bowler in 2019 and had another strong season as a cover corner. But he will also be 32 in April, and the Steelers can save close to $13 million by cutting him.
Regardless, the Steelers will likely have to be choosy with respect to the secondary, though they certainly need to retain at least one or two key pieces.
Cameron Sutton will also be a free agent in the coming months, and he is another guy possibly deserving of a contract. Sutton has been a strong cover guy in the last two seasons and had a career-high eight passes defended in 2020.
But it could be worth the extra work (and money) to bring back the experienced Hilton, who has quietly become a staple of the Steelers' secondary.
1. Brandon Copeland
Not the guy you were expecting to hold down the No. 1 spot, was it? That is the reality of this upcoming offseason for a frugal Steelers team.
Nevertheless, Copeland has some upside as an outside linebacker.
The 29-year-old has primarily been a special teams ace, but recent history suggests he could be productive on the outside.
Copeland started 10 of 16 games for the New York Jets in 2018, finishing the season with 5.0 sacks, eight tackles for a loss and 14 quarterback hits. But he has not been much more than a depth guy since, and he suffered a torn pectoral after playing just six games with the New England Patriots in 2020.
Pittsburgh will need to find some depth at linebacker. The Steelers are all but guaranteed to lose Bud Dupree and will also likely lose inside linebacker Avery Williamson. They need to find guys who can play meaningful snaps while also being capable of rushing the passer.
Copeland would hardly be the flashiest of additions. But he can rush the passer, and provides depth at a position of need.