Joe Kuzma’s 2021 Steelers in-house free agency wish list

The 2021 NFL free agency period will open when the new league year starts at 4 p.m. ET on March 17th, 2021. The Pittsburgh Steelers have already made some contractual moves to help alleviate their cap room in what could be an attempt to bring back several of the impending free agents: many of whom are from the 2017 NFL Draft class.

Here’s my personal wish list of whom I’d like the Steelers to try and retain for the 2021 season and beyond.

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Cameron Sutton

Sutton opened my eyes as his playing time increased, particularly during the 2020 season where he became a splash play waiting to happen. His versatility is such that he could replace an impending free agent, such as nickelback Mike Hilton or play outside on the numbers in Joe Haden’s spot.

The latter is where I’m truly concerned with keeping Sutton.

The fourth-year corner ended up deflecting eight passes, picking off another, getting a rare Steelers CB sack on the quarterback and wreaked havoc on ball carriers by forcing three fumbles.

He is currently 26 years of age while Mike Hilton is almost a full year older, and Joe Haden turns 32 years old on April 14th.

We often mention on our platform that receivers and those covering them start to tap out after turning 31, which leads to my concern with Haden. While he could potentially still play at a top level, his time is clearly winding down.

Does he have one good year left? Two?

Potentially he could play a few more seasons, but he’s also only under contract through 2021. The prospect of a stacked Steelers secondary in 2020 losing Hilton, Sutton, and Haden this year and/or next is one I do not want to entertain.

Give me the versatile player: that’s why Sutton is the top of my priority list, as someone who can play for Hilton this season and perhaps replace Haden in 2021.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster

This may surprise everyone considering the Steelers have three other receivers on the roster who are all capable hands, but JuJu Smith-Schuster is the guy I want on the roster for the long-term right now.

In a year where the Steelers led the league in drops, Ben Roethlisberger relied heavily on his “veteran” pass catcher to move the chains: so much so that JuJu created a new historical stat for least receiving yards on most receptions.

That’s not necessarily a bad statistic. In fact, Smith-Schuster reminds me of a young Hines Ward; a solid possession style receiver who can move around the formation and isn’t afraid dust-up with defenders. He gets physical, with a smile, just like Ward did.

He’s also still insanely young, not turning 25 until November. A four-year deal would see JuJu likely signing yet another toward that magical “31” mentioned above, if he has the longevity of his predecessors such as Ward or even a post-meltdown Antonio Brown.

Some will argue he’s not a “WR1” or that he wants “WR1 money”, but we’re seeing rumblings that Smith-Schuster prefers to remain in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger, who returns for the 2021 season after reworking his contract, has also advocated to keep JuJu on the roster.

Big Ben also took a big pay cut – just who do we think he did that for?

I’m thinking it was his security blanket, Smith-Schuster!

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Bud Dupree

Let me be clear: this is a wish list… and it’s a big wish to try and get one of the elite pass rushers in the NFL, Bud Dupree, under the fold for 2021 – when yet another, T.J. Watt, is going to command record-setting money the following season.

The only reason I’m going to entertain this thought is a low payout first-year followed with money spread over multiple years in a contract. It’s a far more doable deal than most think, especially with a lot of money (notably Roethlisberger’s) coming off of the books over the next few seasons.

A lot of the Steelers other top-dollar earners are headed in another direction as well, with Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald retiring, Alejandro Villanueva likely not re-signing, and still others like Joe Haden or Eric Ebron playing in contract seasons for 2021.

That makes me think there’s a chance, albeit a slight one, Dupree could be back. However, it won’t be a franchise tag.

Now, you’re probably asking why I think this way, especially with Alex Highsmith on the roster. While Highsmith played admirably, I still think Dupree is a unique talent who is peaking at the right time. He and Watt make each other better, and the amount of highlight clips I’ve produced over the last two seasons that include Dupree strip-sacking quarterbacks is mindboggling.

I think Highsmith can be adequate, but if you’re thinking a last ride with Big Ben hosting a Lombardi Trophy, then Dupree has to return to make that vision a reality.

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Tyson Alualu

The former first round pick of the Jaguars has had a resurgence since coming to Pittsburgh: but turning 34 years of age in May, does he have a long-term chance of playing at a high level still?

I believe so, as Alualu is often used as a nose tackle in the Steelers schemes. This sees his playing time reduced to about half of the defensive snaps, used in rotation with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt as tackles too, but never getting a heavier workload unless one of those two defensive ends winds up injured.

I think this could preserve Alualu and give him a shot at hanging around another season or two. It’s not unheard of in rotations or even on the Steelers defensive line. James Harrison is the age-old example with an outside linebacker rotation seeing the Steelers all-time sacks leader playing into his late 30’s.

However, it’s Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, and Kimo von Oelhoffen who give me more optimism for this prediction, as each played to at least 35, with Keisel last suiting up at age 36 in 2014.

That opens the door for the Steelers to kick the can a bit on replacing Alualu during an offseason where they’re looking at other openings to fill.

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Everyone Else

I highly anticipate exclusive rights free agents such as Robert Spillane and Marcus Allen to be re-signed within the coming days. The one player I failed to recognize as much on this article is Mike Hilton, whom I would 110% welcome back with open arms.

However, it appears from what little Hilton has mentioned via social media that his demands will likely exceed what the Steelers can offer him. That’s a shame, considering how he’s utilized in Pittsburgh’s schemes, where he flourishes covering larger tight ends or adds a dynamic to blitz packages.

Yet, we have to understand that sinking money into a nickel cornerback might be a luxury over an elite pass rusher or a future outside starting cornerback – both of which took the Steelers years to finally get right after trial runs with Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns as former first round picks.

For me, that disqualifies Hilton’s chances of returning.

The other name not mentioned is James Conner, who also appears to have the same zest to return to the Steel City. The Steelers are stuck with where they spend their money, and it might not be at the running back position.

There’s also questions about Conner’s durability over the last few seasons too. The team could choose to address their depth chat with a free agent or a draft pick – or both – and alleviate the concerns over who their weekly starter is.

It’s entirely possible they also view Benny Snell or Anthony McFarland, each drafted in the last two years, as the heir to the throne. Both come younger, healthier and more cost effective than handing Conner a second contract.

Those reasons have me souring on Conner’s return.

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