Why the Steelers don’t splurge during free agency

The 2021 NFL free agency period will open when the new league year starts at 4 p.m. ET on March 17th, 2021. The legal “tampering period” will also unfold days before, where teams can meet with impending free agents from other franchises.

While bolstering one’s roster with players from other teams sounds like a good plan, the Steelers seldom dip their toe into the deep end of free agency: and for several reasons.

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Cap Space

This is the big one and where a lot of fans think the Steelers are cheap when it comes to spending on free agents. The reality is, the Steelers pay to retain their own players – and usually with contract terms that best help the entire organization.

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Building Through The Draft

Adding to the cap space point above, when you build your team through the NFL Draft, you get a decent four-year reprieve of paying a lower-cost rookie contract.

Oftentimes this is the best avenue for teams, especially those like the Steelers, who “hit” on their draft picks with consistency.

For example, T.J. Watt has been playing on a rookie deal up until this season, where he will receive a larger fifth-year option on that same contract, having been a former first round pick. However, there’s no doubt that he will get a landmark contract when the two sides come to the table to keep him with the Steelers from 2022 and beyond.

That’s where the cap space goes: to great players the Steelers draft.

Over the years the largest contracts have been awarded to homegrown players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, David DeCastro, and Maurkice Pouncey.

Going back further, other top earners who deserved what they got include Antonio Brown, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Heath Miller, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, and countless others.

Simply stated, when you do well in the draft by selecting players who perform at a franchise or higher level, you can expect to pay big bucks and always play it close to the cap limit.

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Shrewd Spending

This wording my fly in the face of my claiming the Steelers aren’t cheap, but the two words don’t go hand-in-hand necessarily.

The Steelers have gone out and acquired some higher profile free agents when they’ve deemed doing so was the right way to go.

While the names don’t always pop off of the page in terms of the league’s biggest paydays, substantial money has been shelled out in recent years. To secure the secondary, the Steelers made Joe Haden and Steven Nelson two of the higher paid players on the team.

Last season they added Eric Ebron to the fold as they continue to try and find a consistent solution at the tight end position. While among the top portion of the Steelers salary structure, the contracts for Haden, Nelson, and Ebron don’t reach the stratosphere of other in the league.

Nelson and Haden’s deals have a cap hit that puts them in the top ten of all cornerbacks, but both enter the final season of their deal with cap money spread out to this last season of the contract: their actual money paid out in 2021 ranks them 21st and 25th respectively among all corners (according to OverTheCap.com).

The same goes for Ebron, who ranks 4th in cap hit but 12th in cash spent.

Free agency will certainly push them all further down the salary ladder as players ink better deals with new teams.

Therefore you can see that the Steelers aren’t afraid to spend: they just don’t overspend.

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Not Many Needs

When you draft well and retain your star players for less than you’d pay for a free agent to replace them, then you won’t have many needs to begin with.

The Steelers enter this year’s free agency period with a few holes, with some of their own in-house players still to be determined.

For example, Bud Dupree could hit free agency and sign with another team. However, last season Pittsburgh drafted Alex Highsmith at the same position and got to see a sneak preview of what he could do when Dupree was placed on IR.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is another pending free agent with a stable of receivers behind him on the depth chart.

James Conner is yet another player on the list that could leave the team. Regardless of your thoughts on his backups or the Steelers running game, the team drafted backs in each of the last two drafts. We’ve seen Benny Snell pickup 100+ yards when called upon as the lead back.

Those needs can also be addressed in the draft too – something the Steelers excel at.

With draft picks costing a cash-strapped organization less money, and with glaring holes truly existing in only one main spot (offensive line, for now), there isn’t a gigantic need to blow money on free agents, even if Pittsburgh had the money to do so.

In previous years the same held true, where maybe one or two positions required fortification in free agency and the draft.

I would expect much of the same planning by the Pittsburgh Steelers during this offseason, with the only potential free agency splashes being made by re-signing some of their own to-be free agents.

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