Where will key Pittsburgh Steelers free agents end up in 2021? PFF gives their predictions…
With the NFL offseason officially underway, it is time for major media outlets to start putting out their lists. For some, it is just ranking where players land on their “Top 100”, but for Pro Football Focus (PFF), you know they couldn’t just stop with a list.
The fine folks at PFF just put together their Top 150 free agent list, but they didn’t just list the top free agents set to hit the open market in March, but where they think they will end up.
With that said, check out the Pittsburgh Steelers players who made the PFF Top 150 free agent list, and where they see them landing for the 2021 season, and for how much:
23. WR JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER
JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to hit free agency having just turned 24 years old because of how young he was when he entered the NFL before the 2017 season. His exact role and ceiling is still something of an open question. His best season — an 81.8 overall grade in 2018 — came working predominantly inside and when Antonio Brown was the primary threat for the Steelers. Injury robbed us of the chance to see if he could step into Brown’s role and replace that production before the team decided — aided by the emergence of Diontae Johnson, among others — to move him back to the slot for most of his snaps.
There is a lot to like about his game. He is clearly smart, understands coverages and can exploit both man and zone defenses from the slot, as well as having good size, but his projection as a full-time perimeter receiver involved more guesswork, and that’s his biggest battle heading to the negotiating table.
Contract Analysis: Even before the 2020 season began, pundits predicted that Smith-Schuster would be playing his final season in Pittsburgh. With the emergence of Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, that’s now even more of a safe bet.
Prediction: Jets sign Smith-Schuster for four years, $68 million ($17M APY): $35M total guaranteed, $22M fully guaranteed at signing.
26. CB MIKE HILTON
Hilton epitomizes the do-it-all slot corner who can cover in both man and zone, play the run and blitz effectively. The Steelers’ scheme allows him to show off all of those skills, and he’s quietly been one of the most valuable corners in the league since 2017. The one concern is his 26 missed tackles over the last two seasons.
Hilton has only played a handful of snaps on the outside since entering the league, so expect him to play in the slot no matter where he lands. However, given the difficult nature of that position, he should be coveted on the open market. Even at just 184 pounds, Hilton is annually among the top corners in defensive stops, highlighting his willingness to stick his nose in against the run as well as his proficiency as a blitzer.
Contract Analysis: Hilton scrapped his way into significant playing time with the Steelers after starting his career by bouncing around practice squads. He’s become a quality cover corner in the slot with the ability to affect the passer on the occasional pass-rush snap. As evidenced by the predictions for all slot cornerbacks, the market didn’t materialize in 2020, and it’s hard to imagine it will in 2021.
Prediction: Steelers sign Hilton for three years, $12M ($4M APY): $4M total guaranteed/fully guaranteed at signing (signing bonus, Steelers don’t guarantee otherwise).
33. T ALEJANDRO VILLANUEVA
There’s immense value in solid, mid-tier offensive linemen, and that’s exactly what Villanueva has been throughout his career. He’s graded between 74.0 and 82.0 in each of his last five seasons; he ranks in the 54th percentile in PFF pass-blocking grade and the 46th percentile in pass-blocking grade on true pass sets during that time.
There’s a similar level of dependability to Villanueva’s game as a run-blocker. He ranks in the 74th percentile at avoiding negatively graded plays but just the 23rd percentile in positively graded plays. NFL teams must avoid having disastrous options at offensive tackle, and Villanueva’s profile makes him a valuable asset.
Contract Analysis: Villanueva has had a remarkable NFL career after serving in the U.S. military, going undrafted and then working his way to becoming one of the league’s best left tackles. Nevertheless, the Steelers will have a very tough time retaining Villanueva after pushing all their chips in on 2020. We wouldn’t be surprised if Villanueva, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Bud Dupree are all playing elsewhere in 2021, purely for salary cap reasons.
Prediction: Chargers sign Villanueva for three years, $45 million ($15M APY): $30M total guaranteed, $20M fully guaranteed at signing.
55. EDGE BUD DUPREE
Dupree broke out with a 77.7 overall grade in 2019, good for 23rd among edge rushers. That marked trampled his previous performances, which ranged from 44.4 (2015) to 62.6 (2016) overall, and he came back down to Earth here in 2020 with a 60.2 overall grade prior to a season-ending injury.
The key with Dupree is not to get caught up in the sack totals, particularly this season, as most of his sacks have come down to quarterbacks holding the ball for way too long. Dupree does play hard, and his high motor allows him to get in several hustle plays and clean-up sacks, but high-end pass-rushers should be winning one-on-one against offensive tackles far more often than Dupree has shown over his career.
Given Pittsburgh’s blitz-happy scheme and supporting talent combined with Dupree’s mediocre career grades and subsequent injury, he’s a buyer-beware candidate on the open market.
Contract Analysis: Pittsburgh chose to let Bud Dupree walk in free agency the minute they extended defensive lineman Cameron Heyward before the 2020 season. Soon enough, T.J. Watt could be looking for the first $30M APY contract for a defensive player in NFL history, and the odds are that he’ll be worth it. Unfortunately for Dupree, a torn ACL in Week 12 may limit his options to one-year prove-it deals.
Prediction: Colts sign Dupree for one year, $10 million ($10M APY): $7.5M total guaranteed/fully guaranteed at signing.
81. RB JAMES CONNER
Conner is a productive player with an incredible story, and after defeating cancer and graduating from Pittsburgh, he was able to continue his career in the Steel City. However, with the Steelers drafting Anthony McFarland Jr. and Benny Snell Jr. in the fourth round in back-to-back years, they may have already jump-started the process of moving on.
Contract Analysis: Conner’s production has stalled after an impressive start to his Steelers career, but the lack of dominance also coincides with the team’s run blocking getting worse. Conner has solid PFF grades in all four seasons of his career.
Prediction: Jets sign Conner for three years, $20 million ($6.66M APY): $10 million total guaranteed, $8 million fully guaranteed at signing.
91. CB CAMERON SUTTON
Sutton had played just 621 career snaps coming into 2020 but posted a solid 68.6 overall grade across 552 regular-season snaps in 2020. He was forced to play on the outside down the stretch after primarily lining up in the slot, so there’s some versatility to his game. He’s a high-upside play on a small sample size. Sutton has been above-average in the slot and in single coverage, two places that bring great value to any defense.
Contract Analysis: Sutton didn’t see much of the field over his first three seasons since being drafted in the third round in 2017, but he was solid in 2020 with an expanded role. He could be an interesting chess piece for a team to take a flier on, as he logged snaps at slot corner, out wide and down in the box as a strong safety.
Prediction: Steelers sign Sutton for one year, $2.75 million: $1.5 million total guaranteed/fully guaranteed at signing.
92. T MATT FEILER
Feiler should be a player in demand this offseason, given the state of offensive line play in some areas of the NFL, and especially because he won’t be among the marquee names.
Feiler has extensive starting experience with the Steelers at both right tackle and inside at left guard, and he has graded well at both positions. In four seasons, he has never earned an overall PFF grade lower than 65.0 and hits free agency still well short of 30 years old.
Feiler’s best season from a grading standpoint came while starting at right tackle, the more valuable position. And at the bare minimum, he would represent one of the best “sixth linemen” in the game. Often the best value signings happen in the second wave of free agency, and Feiler would upgrade a lot of offensive lines.
Contract Analysis: Feiler’s ability to play on both sides of the offensive line, as well as outside at tackle and inside at guard, makes him a very intriguing free agent. At no position is it more valuable to excel in multiple roles, and if Feiler could serve as the swing tackle and the first interior offensive lineman off the bench, that could be tremendously valuable to any club.
Prediction: Jets sign Feiler for two years, $12 million ($6M APY): $8 million total guaranteed, $5 million fully guaranteed at signing.
102. DI TYSON ALUALU
After nine years of average to below-average grades and a career-high grade of 66.5, Alualu turned things around with an 80.1 grade in 2019 and an 86.6 mark in 2020. He became sound in the run game and a reasonable pass-rusher who can provide a good 400-500 snaps as part of a defensive line rotation.
Contract Analysis: We don’t often see a career year for a player in his age-33 season, but that’s just what Alualu did. The blueprint for an interior defensive lineman who was a 2010 top-10 pick has been set by Ndamukong Suh, so fortunately we have some solid precedent to work off of here.
Prediction: Jaguars sign Alualu for one year, $6 million fully guaranteed.
What do you think about the above predictions? Let us know in the comment section and be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the new league year, NFL Free Agency and the 2021 NFL Draft.