Joe Kuzma’s 2021 Steelers 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: or target some outside players to help shore up weaknesses in their depth chart.

Here’s my personal wish list of whom I’d like the Steelers to try and go after for during the 2021 offseason.

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Kelvin Beachum

A former Steeler who lost his starting role way back in 2015 (due to injury) was once thought to be in an either-or contract signing scenario with Ramon Foster, who was also in a contract year that particular season.

Beachum had an opportunity to sign long-term with the Steelers at this point, but chose to bet on himself – and the ACL injury he suffered saw the team opt to go with his replacement, Alejandro Villanueva.

Since then, Beachum has bounced around between the Jaguars, Jets, and Cardinals. He turns 32-years-old in June, but may have a year or two left in the tank to either compete for a starting role or provide quality depth for any team that chooses to sign him.

He’s also a locker room leader and is involved with many off-field initiatives.

A great addition to any locker room, if he’s willing and the Steelers are able, I wouldn’t mind bringing “Beach” back into the fold to at least bridge the gap during an offensive line rebuild that will no doubt see some draft picks spent along the offensive front.

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B.J. Finney

While it’s noted that Finney already signed with the Steelers on Friday, he was on my short list of potential free agent centers who are also position flexible: and his signing also negated some other names I had interest in, such as the Seahawks’ Ethan Pocic and Ravens Matt Skura.

His bargain veteran price and familiarity with the Steelers system afford the team an opportunity to roll with Finney as the 2021 starter in place of Maurkice Pouncey, as well as draft a player who could potentially be groomed to takeover in the future as well. (Finney signed a one-year deal, so it’s imperative that Pittsburgh double-dips at the position – something they typically do with positions of need during the offseason.)

Finney was highly regarded during his time with the Steelers, rising from the practice squad where the team made sure to pay him nearly double the going salary in order to make sure he would remain on the roster. He had 13 starts at both center and guard over his four years in Pittsburgh.

That’s why Finney’s name still shows up on my wish list – maybe a few days earlier and making my wish come true!

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Steer Clear of Running Backs

While I’m not necessarily on the “draft a running back in the first round” bandwagon, I’m definitely on board with taking rusher in this year’s draft – just not with the top overall pick.

I’m even more sour on the thought of signing anyone from this year’s free agent class.

Fans might be salivating at the thought of acquiring Green Bay’s Aaron Jones, who will command a high price tag and whom I feel probably won’t leave the Packers anyway. While he’d be worth the money, the Steelers don’t have the luxury of using their limited cap space on such a player.

Nonetheless, who is available at the position?

Names like Chris Carson, Marlon Mack, Leonard Fournette, Todd Gurley, and even Le’Veon Bell all come with their forms of baggage, including injury histories and/or question marks that should make critics of James Conner beg for his return instead.

Any free agent pickup would have to come cheap – and with the knowledge that they could be cut at the end of training camp, a la Knile Davis several years ago. There aren’t enough roster spots to currently house a draft pick and a free agent at the position.

So, who would go?

Benny Snell was drafted two years ago. Anthony McFarland was selected last year. Jaylen Samuels remains, entering the final year of his rookie deal and somewhat lost in the shuffle of last year’s offense after surfacing as a versatile weapon in 2019. I believe Samuels could see some more use in Matt Canada’s schemes.

In my opinion, the lone pickup that could see the Steelers avoid using a draft pick would be Kenyan Drake. While I’d also be comfortable with Marlon Mack, he’s coming off of a serious knee injury. Drake, on the other hand, is a three-down back who can run and catch the ball. He too missed a few games with the Cardinals last season, who are opting to go cheaper with their 2020 draft pick Chase Edmonds.

Drake earned $8 million with the Cards last season, a figure that I would presume is too rich for the Steelers at this time.

If anything, I’d prefer to budget at this position by sticking with a player in the draft.

Therefore, I’m avoiding this entire free agent class if my thoughts are projected on acquiring a running back on day two of the NFL Draft. (i.e., rounds two and three.)

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Face it, the Steelers defensive line is already secure.

The linebackers are as well, even if Bud Dupree leaves we know Alex Highsmith is lying in wait. Devin Bush will return, and Robert Spillane is restricted free agent who should also return for depth on the inside.

The secondary needs more help, if the Steelers are unable to bring back Mike Hilton or Cameron Sutton. Retaining either would have them overlooked the free agents available this season too, if for anything, the cost of acquiring one with limited playing time available for them as Steven Nelson and Joe Haden come back for 2021 also.

If I add anyone through free agency, it would be an edge rusher. However, the pickings are quite slim for what the Steelers could afford. There are players in their prime, but they top out around the top eight or so available. Older or unproven talents round out what’s left, which leaves me to believe the Steelers will bide their time and wait before plucking anyone from this crop.

The two names that truly leap out to me are Takkarist McKinley and Matt Judon.

McKinley was a name linked with the Steelers back in 2017 when they selected T.J. Watt four picks later. He hasn’t lived up to potential, hobbled with various failed physicals and landing on IR with the Raiders last season. If his market is cold, and the Steelers believe he’s a late bloomer like Dupree, he has the physical traits to at least provide some depth or a camp battle at the spot Dupree may vacate.

Matt Judon played the old Terrell Suggs role in Baltimore to near perfection. He’s made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons and is a player the Steelers are intimately familiar with as an outside linebacker on the other side of the battlefield. With 34.5 sacks over five seasons, his market will be interesting, and like Aaron Jones above, he’s someone the Ravens may allow to test the waters of free agency, but ultimately not let go of.

For all intents and purposes, the best-served move for the Steelers here, if they make one, is to attempt to bring back Dupree, and one of the two between Hilton and Sutton.

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Wide Receivers

JuJu Smith-Schuster is likely to bank during free agency. The question is whether or not it will be with the Steelers.

I believe that Bud Dupree is still the highest priority free agent the Steelers have, with Smith-Schuster coming in… third.

My second priority is between Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton, with Sutton my favorite of the two (due to versatility).

The reason that JuJu comes in lower has nothing to do with his ability or my desire to not want him back – it has a lot to do with the depth currently on the roster as well as the Steelers uncanny ability to find other receivers in the draft.

That makes a large dollar contract for Smith-Schuster tough to swallow; but something I’d be alright with provided they can’t get deals done with their other impending free agents.

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