Steelers Free Agency: Who Stays, Who Goes?

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Hosted by
Zachary Smith

I am a Beaver County native, lover of all teams that wear the black & gold with a passion for podcasting and writing.

The Pittsburgh Steelers season ended with a disappointing loss in the Wild Card round to an AFC North rival, the Cleveland Browns. With the conclusion of the 2020 season brings a very uncertain off-season. One that is going to be tough to swallow for the team and fans alike. It seems like Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will return to play out the last year of his contract. It sounds like Center Maurkice Pouncey is a truly on the fence about whether he will be back next season or retire. Beyond that, Steelers free agency includes around 20 players, many of them key contributors. I’ve gone over this list several times and have changed my mind several times about whether each guy stays in black & gold. As we sit here today, here are where my thoughts are with each player.

Bud Dupree

After back to back years (one shortened by injury) of proving himself to be amongst the elite pass rushers in the game, Bud Dupree is in for a big pay day. That pay day will come on the open market and from a team not located in Pittsburgh. The Steelers simply can’t afford him and early results have been promising from heir apparent Alex Highsmith. Bud absolutely deserves every penny he will get, it’s just not feasible to think he will be back. I’m hoping a move to the NFC is in the cards, but the Titans or Raiders make way to much sense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

From Joe Sargent, Getty Images

It’s been 4 years of JuJu in black & gold already? Time has really flown by for him. Put the dancing and branding aside, JuJu is one of the most productive 24 year old wide receivers the league has ever seen. His style of play perfectly embodies the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is the closest thing to Hines Ward we have, present day. He is also in line for a nice pay day. I’ve gone back and forth on this one quite a bit.

Despite how a vast majority of the media and how a portion of the fanbase feels, the organization loves this kid. They’d love to be able to bring him back and it sounds like he would be on board with remaining in Pittsburgh. The problem is not only would he have to take less money to make it happen, the Steelers would also likely have to shed salary. The ramifications of the pandemic on the league will impact all of the teams, but the Steelers are amongst the most hurt by it. My prediction is JuJu leaves in free agency. A reunion with college teammate Sam Darnold and the new regime in New York has been often rumored.

Mike Hilton

It’s finally Mike Hilton’s time to get paid. Since joining the team as an undrafted free agent, Mike Hilton’s return on investment has been astronomical. A perfect player for the scheme the Steelers play in, I’m not sure any other team would be able to get the absolute most out of Hilton. I’m not saying he’s a scheme specific player, I’m just saying he’s perfect for this scheme. They love Hilton and I just don’t see a way the Steelers let him walk. Hilton returns to the Steelers on a new deal. He gets paid, but takes less than he could’ve gotten on the open market.

Cam Sutton

The Steelers issues with drafting and developing cornerbacks is long documented. Cam Sutton decided to not follow in those footsteps. He has gotten better each season and turned himself into a versatile chess piece for this defense. Capable of playing multiple positions, I know the Steelers would hate to lose Sutton. They finally have a productive homegrown cornerback, you’d hate to see him go on and flourish in another organization. I think the team finds a way to keep Sutton under market value, but it comes at the cost of cutting veteran corner Joe Haden. A move that will sadden a good part of the fanbase, myself included but seems like the right call. It would allow you to go with youth in that area. That would essentially be handing boundary duty over to Sutton, a job he is more than capable of doing.

James Conner

From The Game Haus

There isn’t an easier person to root for than James Conner. A local product who has played all of his football in the area and overcome cancer along the way. Things just haven’t gone James’ way since his breakout 2018 campaign. Injuries, injuries and more injuries have hampered his production, and it’s unlikely he returns to the Steelers. I just don’t see a scenario where they give Conner a new deal. It’s much more likely they rely on Snell, McFarland and somebody they add in the 2021 draft.

Vance McDonald (option)

Yeah….Vance McDonald isn’t going to be back…at least on his current deal. The team has a club option on him and it’s almost a guarantee they don’t pick it up. Even if they weren’t looking for ways to shed salary, McDonald isn’t worth the nearly $8 million cap hit he presents. They will instead decline that option and accept the nearly $2.8 million dead cap hit to save $5.2 million. It’s a no brainer for any team but even more for a team up against the cap. I think it’s possible the team brings him back for close to the minimum should he not find a new home on the open market. I think it’s much more likely he signs a deal to be a TE2 as a primary blocker somewhere. Seattle comes to mind with the expected departure of Greg Olsen.

Alejandro Villanueva

Villanueva is quite the story. He’s gone from a project to a two time Pro-Bowl selection to somebody a majority of the fanbase can’t wait to move on from. Through the ups and downs, he has provided stability at the most important position along the offensive line. Now push his mid 30s and his play noticeably declining, the team is expected to part ways with Villanueva.

It’s entirely possible Villanueva decides to call it a career. He’s achieved more than I think anyone anticipated in football and that’s not to mention his military service. I’m gonna go out on a limb with this prediction. He signs a short term deal with the Colts to protect Phillip Rivers who will sign a new deal with Indy in this hypothetical. They could address LT in the draft, but I think they go this route and look at the draft to address other areas including WR.

Matt Feiler

Things have really changed for Feiler since the end of last season. He played well at RT for the Steelers and I would’ve considered him a long term piece somewhere along the line. A shift to guard didn’t go so well for Feiler though. His play (and the line’s as a whole) dipped dramatically. The unit was not good and they’re aging.

I think Feiler gets caught up in the team looking to move away from any of the current offensive line pieces they can to infuse new blood. Feiler signs with a team looking for G/T versatility on a multi-year deal. I’ll throw out a couple teams as options. The Lions and Eagles come to mind right away. The Jets still need help along the offensive line. What about a reunion with his first offensive line coach, Mike Munchak out in Denver though? He got the most out of him, can he help him find his way again?

Zach Banner

Banner has become a fan favorite and was slated to be the team’s starting RT this season. That lasted less than 4 quarters, as a torn ACL ended his 2020 season before he really got going. His body transformation and the work he put in hasn’t gone unnoticed. I think the team believes that he is a starting caliber tackle in this league. Banner will be brought back on a one-year prove it deal to showcase he can be the guy they thought they were getting in 2020, even after a devastating injury.

Tyson Alualu

From Getty Images

This is another interesting one. Tyson Alualu had an overall solid season and it came despite a transition to a new position while nearing his mid 30s. A mid-season injury seemed to cause a dip in play, but he was still their best option in the middle of the defensive line. I truthfully have no clue what his value will be on the open market, but this is another one of those cases where it just seems like the player benefits too much playing in this scheme to move on. I think Alualu is brought back on another short term deal making a little more than the veteran minimum. He gets to keep playing alongside Heyward and Tuitt, and the team retains one of their best run stoppers.

Avery Williamson

Following a mid-season trade, Williamson was used more as insurance than anything else for a team who needed it at inside linebacker. Devin Bush was lost due to a torn ACL. Robert Spillane hurt his knee and missed multiple weeks. Vince Williams missed time with Covid-19. Williamson was fine in his role, but we saw his limitations in pass coverage and I don’t think he signs a new deal to be a situational player here. Williamson will sign a one-year deal with a team that can provide him a larger opportunity. I’ll go Eagles here due to a lack of inside linebackers on the roster.

Jordan Berry

After returning to the Steelers following a pre-season cut, Berry looked to have improved. However as the season went on, the consistency that has always lacked from him reared it’s ugly head. Berry’s season as a whole was pretty solid, but just as it did in 2019 his play dipped down the stretch. For whatever reason, the team seems to like Berry enough to keep giving him chances. I think they bring him back but once again, not without competition. He won’t see much of a pay raise if any, and has about as much job security as a Houston Texans employee.

Chris Wormley

Following a trade from the Ravens, Wormley was brought in to help stop the run. That’s what he was known for and while we saw some flashes down the stretch, I’m not sure we saw enough to see him return to Pittsburgh on a new deal. He was hopeful to prove he was worthy of a multi-year deal and could stick around, I just don’t see that happening. I think he signs a one-year deal as a rotational piece and run stopper. I’ll throw a dart and say he returns to Michigan where he played college ball and joins the Lions.

Jordan Dangerfield

Dangerfield has carved out a nice role for himself in the NFL. He has become the Special Teams captain and the ace of that unit. We know how important special teams are to Mike Tomlin and I don’t think they have any plans to let Dangerfield go anytime soon. Dangerfield returns on a new multi-year deal with a modest pay raise to continue excelling in his current role.

Sean Davis

Davis returned to the Steelers, albeit in a much different role in 2020. He went from full-time starter to primarily a special teams player. He was fine in that role, but may look for greener pastures. This is a true toss up, but as we all know there are going to be more departures than guys returning. Davis leaves and signs a one-year deal with a team that can offer him a larger role. I think he will primarily be a special teams player wherever he goes, but he will look to go somewhere he can get on the field as a 3rd safety. That opportunity comes when he signs with the Raiders.

Josh Dobbs

From Justin K. Aller,Getty Images)

Much like Davis, Dobbs found his way back to the Steelers this year. He is highly regarded for his contributions to the quarterback room, despite not seeing much playing time. His mind is an asset to any organization and he can operate as another coach on game day. Ben is still here. Mason is still here. Will another QB be added? If so, Dobbs is certainly on his way out. He may opt for greener pastures, looking to see if he can secure a backup gig somewhere. As I alluded to with the JuJu to New York scenario, as of right now I have the Jets moving forward with quarterback Sam Darnold. If that’s the case, they will be looking for a veteran to replace Joe Flacco as the backup. Good landing spot for Dobbs in my opinion.

Jayrone Elliott

Elliott played sparingly on defense, seeing some snaps as a pass rusher however his home was on special teams. He’s an underwhelming player that is a dime a dozen in this league. I don’t think he’s back, but will likely latch on somewhere else in the exact role he had here. Total shot in the dark here, but let’s keep him in the AFC North as he signs with the Bengals.

Cassius Marsh

Marsh was a late season addition for the Steelers, and due to injury one that played quite a bit. It wasn’t an impressive showing though, and we got a glimpse as to why he has moved around so much in recent years. He’s an ok special teams player, but doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher and gets beat up in the run game. I’m not sure what reason the team would have to bring him back.

I’m not trying to be hard on Marsh here, but it’s just the truth. I think Marsh stops off next year like this year, and that’s on a practice squad somewhere. I mean this is just a total dart throw but for sake of predictions, I’ll throw out the Jets here too. The reason? Robert Saleh is now in town and Marsh had his most productive season in San Fancisco with Saleh at the helm.

Danny Isidora

Isidora was claimed later in the season to provide the team some depth along the offensive line. Hopefully this is an area the team improves through the draft, however with the age and departures expected along the line I think Isidora might actually have a shot to be with the team when camp opens up. The fact of the matter is the team lost Derwin Gray and opted to keep Isidora in the process. They must like him to some degree. I think Isidora will be brought back cheap and compete to be one of the offensive lineman that round out the roster. It’s much more likely he finds a home on the practice squad.

The team also has some notable restricted free agents (RFAs) in the form of Ray-Ray McCloud, Marcus Allen, Ola Adeniyi, JC Hassenauer and Robert Spillane. I expect all of these guys to be brought back. The only RFA I think they will move on from is tackle Jerald Hawkins who is another guy that returned to the organization following a trade the season prior.

The Pittsburgh Steelers could and most likely will look very different in 2021. It’s going to be ushering out one era of Steelers football and begin to usher in a new one. With the draft and free agency nearing, questions continue to mount. Pretty soon we will have the answers to all of these questions.

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Episode 66