As the 2020 NFL season winds to a close with the Super Bowl this weekend, the Steelers will prepare to enter the offseason with some of the most roster uncertainty they have seen in nearly two decades. Of the 60 players that ended the season on either the Steelers active roster or injured reserve, 19 are pending unrestricted free agents and 5 more are set to be either restricted or exclusive rights free agents. On top of that, the Steelers are projected to be around $20 million over the salary cap, which will be lower in 2021 than it was in 2020 due to the COVID agreement between the Player’s Union and the NFL. In addition to those 24 players, 17 more players including big names like Roethlisberger, Pouncey, DeCastro, Watt, Nelson, and Haden have just one year left on their contracts. This gives the Steelers limited ability to restructure contracts and would likely require a number of extensions to stretch out their cap hits over subsequent years.
Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the Steelers roster heading into a sure-to-be-tumultuous 2021 offseason. Players listed in italics are signed to reserve/futures contracts.
Under Contract for 2021: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins
Pending Free Agent: Josh Dobbs
The biggest decision for the Steelers this offseason will be how to handle Ben Roethlisberger. Ben has just one year remaining on his contract and is due to count $41 million against the salary cap. A majority of that money ($22.25 million) is in pro-rated bonuses carried forward from previous restructurings and will count no matter what. The other $19 million is split between a $15 million roster bonus due in March and $4 million in base salary. If Ben wants to play this year, the best move would be for the Steelers to sign him to an extension and convert the $19 million to a signing bonus which would spread out the cap hit over a few seasons. While Ben was not at his best down the stretch, he showed he still has what it takes to be a winning quarterback in the league. Ben was at his best early in the season when there was some semblance of a running game to support him. Mason Rudolph is certainly not the long-term answer and has just one year remaining on his rookie deal. Former 1st round pick Dwayne Haskins was signed to a low-risk reserve/futures contract but don’t be surprised if the Steelers look to add a quarterback at some point this offseason. The quarterback of the future is likely not on the roster at this point in time.
Under Contract for 2021: Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds
Pending Free Agents: James Conner
The Steelers finished with the worst running game in the league last season and changes will certainly be made this year both in the backfield and on the offensive line. James Conner has proven he can be an effective back when healthy, and led the team with 721 yards and 6 TDs this season. The problem is the “when healthy” part as he missed 3 games this season with injuries and has yet to be healthy for a full season since he was drafted. Conner will be a free agent and will likely explore the market, but there isn’t much demand on the open market for running backs. Without Conner, the Steelers absolutely need to add more talent to the backfield as Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland are likely more role-players than every-down backs.
Under Contract for 2021: Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, James Washington, Anthony Johnson, Cody White
Pending Free Agents: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ray-Ray McCloud
Outside of Ben Roethlisberger, the biggest question at the skill positions will be what to do with JuJu Smith-Schuster. JuJu was the Steelers most reliable receiver this year. He caught a team-high 97 passes and 9 TDs while his 76% catch percentage was the highest among the receiving corps. JuJu became the slot receiver this year and while his depth of target significantly decreased, he led the team in yards after the catch and 1st downs. If JuJu leaves in free agency, it would stand to reason that Diontae Johnson (923 yards, 7 TDs) and Chase Claypool (873 yards, 9 TDs) would become the starters on the outside. The question would be whether James Washington (392 yards, 5 TDs) could step into the slot role or if the Steelers would need to go out and find another slot receiver. Ray-Ray McCloud is a restricted free agent so if the Steelers wanted him to take on a larger role he should be relatively easy to re-sign.
Under Contract for 2021: Eric Ebron, Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader, Charles Jones
Pending Free Agents: none
With Vance McDonald retiring, the Steelers saved $5.2 million against the salary cap but also lost their best blocking tight end. Eric Ebron (558 yards, 5 TDs) had the most touchdowns by a Steelers tight end since Heath Miller had 8 in 2012. While Ebron does have a fairly high cap hit, it seems likely he will play out his contract and be the starting tight end in 2021. Behind Ebron the position lacks serious depth as Zach Gentry stinks and Kevin Rader was called into action off the practice squad late last year. Even with Ebron on the roster, the Steelers are in dire need of additional help at tight end.
Under Contract for 2021: Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Aviante Collins, Jarron Jones, John Leglue, Brandon Walton
Pending Free Agents: Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, Zach Banner, Jerald Hawkins, Danny Isidora, JC Hassenauer
The big question on the offensive line surrounds Maurkice Pouncey’s future. There have been multiple reports this offseason that he is considering retirement but no official announcement at this point. The line figures to have a massive overhaul in the coming years with Pouncey and David DeCastro nearing the ends of their respective contracts. Kevin Dotson performed admirably this year and looked like a starter in waiting at guard. With Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, and Zach Banner all set to be free agents, three of the five starting linemen from Week 1 will likely be different in 2021. After Banner’s injury, Okorafor stepped in and had an up-and-down season. The Steelers definitely need to add a tackle (and possibly a center, depending on Pouncey) in the draft this year. Backup center JC Hassenauer is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, so expect him back on the roster but probably not as the starter. It is possible the Steelers look to bring Zach Banner back, but expect some youth to be added to the line via the Draft as well.
Under Contract for 2021: Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis, Henry Mondeaux, Calvin Taylor, Demarcus Christmas
Pending Free Agents: Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley
With Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt both securely under contract, defensive line will be one of the most stable positions heading into 2021. Heyward was a force to be reckoned with and was rewarded with another Pro Bowl selection. Tuitt finished with 11 sacks, one of just 8 players in the league to break the double-digit sack mark this season. Tyson Alualu gave the Steelers solid play at the nose tackle position and if he wants to keep playing it would not be surprising to see him come back on a short-term deal. If not, the Steelers have invested late round draft picks in Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis who could both develop into rotational players. Alualu will be 34 next season so he may opt to retire.
Under Contract for 2021: TJ Watt, Alex Highsmith
Pending Free Agents: Bud Dupree, Ola Adeniyi, Jayrone Elliott, Cassius Marsh
With Bud Dupree set to hit free agency, 2020 3rd round pick Alex Highsmith will likely step into the starting role across from TJ Watt. Watt deserves to win the Defensive Player of the Year award but even if he is robbed of it, the Steelers will have to sign him to a massive contract extension. Watt’s range is likely in the $25 million per year realm where top edge rushers like Joey Bosa, Myles Garrett, and Khalil Mack have recently inked contracts. Even coming off an ACL injury, Dupree still finished in the Top 20 in the league in sacks and can likely command somewhere north of $17 million per year on the open market. The Steelers simply will not be able to afford him. Ola Adeniyi will be a restricted free agent and the Steelers will likely try to bring him back as the top reserve at the outside linebacker position.
Under Contract for 2021: Devin Bush, Vince Williams, Ulysses Gilbert, Tegray Scales
Pending Free Agents: Robert Spillane, Avery Williamson, Marcus Allen
The Steelers defense took a massive hit when Devin Bush was lost for the season. With Bush back, the run defense should see dramatic improvement as well as the ability to cover running backs and tight ends. Vince Williams has one year left on his contract with a $4 million base salary. Vince has been a capable starter in his role, but with Robert Spillane as an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, the Steelers may be able to get a similar level of play for much cheaper. Ulyssees Gilbert has been a player that generates a lot of buzz because of his speed but seems to be constantly injured so his future is uncertain. Marcus Allen is also an Exclusive Rights Free Agent so for better or worse, he would be relatively easy to re-sign.
Under Contract for 2021: Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Justin Layne, James Pierre, Trevor Williams
Pending Free Agents: Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton
Joe Haden and Steven Nelson are both entering the final years of their contracts. They are among the highest-paid players on the team with Haden holding a $15 million cap hit and Nelson a $14 million cap hit. Nelson is certainly a candidate for an extension to lower his cap hit and tie him to the team beyond 2021. Joe Haden is nearing the end of his career, and any type of extension for him would likely be similar to Ben Roethlisberger’s where the only guaranteed money was the conversion of his $7 million base salary into a signing bonus. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton are both unrestricted free agents and it would behoove the Steelers to get one or both signed before they get there. Both are quality players who fit the scheme well. Sutton is better in coverage while Hilton is better against the run. Hilton is almost exclusively a slot corner but considering he plays over 60% of defensive snaps he is basically a starter. Sutton can play both inside or outside but is not as strong in run support and is better in space. James Pierre was a pleasant surprise this season and seemingly surpassed Justin Layne on the depth chart by season’s end.
Under Contract for 2021: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Antoine Brooks, John Battle, Stephen Denmark
Pending Free Agents: Jordan Dangerfield, Sean Davis
The starters here are set. Minkah Fitzparick and Terrell Edmunds both have one year left on their rookie deals and the Steelers will have the decision to pick up their 5th year options as both were first round picks. It is a guarantee they will pick up Minkah’s option as he has given them two All-Pro seasons since being acquired in a trade. Terrell Edmunds is a bit of a question mark on the 5th year option – he has been fine in run support but his play in space and pass coverage leave a lot to be desired. Antoine Brooks was drafted in the 6th round in 2020 and profiles as more of a dimebacker/in-the-box safety who can play downhill. While the starters are set, the Steelers definitely could use some additional depth at safety.
Under Contract for 2021: Chris Boswell, Kam Canaday, Corliss Waitman, Christian Kuntz
Pending Free Agents: Jordan Berry
Chris Boswell had a solid season in 2020 and despite battling through some injuries the kicking game did not suffer. The Steelers tried to part ways with Jordan Berry but wound up bringing him back. Berry will be a free agent this season but it is entirely possible, like in 2020, he winds up punting for the Steelers once again.