The Pittsburgh Steelers made arguably the biggest decision of their 2021 season this week, announcing that Ben Roethlisberger will return for an 18th season and all but promising a restructure of the quarterback’s contract to ensure compliance with a reduced salary cap. The re-commitment to Big Ben entering the QB’s age-39 season, which follows weeks of speculation and ambiguous team statements regarding the longtime signal-caller’s future, says one thing above all: The Steelers are still determined to be contenders in 2021. There’s no other logical explanation for retaining a costly, aging quarterback with a tight cap.
Is it the smart thing to do? Retaining Roethlisberger for one last win-now push? Not necessarily. But by choosing this path rather than swallowing the hard pill of an inevitable future reset, the Steelers have given themselves basically no other choice: they have to build around Ben. If this is the last hurrah, reinforcements are in order.
Enter the tight finances. The Steelers are well on their way to getting under the projected 2021 cap thanks to restructures and potential extensions. But unless they make some serious sacrifices, like letting Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva walk in free agency and cutting key veterans like Eric Ebron and Vince Williams, they’re not going to have room to spend big on the open market. That means no splashy play-maker like Aaron Jones or grade-A workhorse like Chris Carson. And that’s not even accounting for their own top free agents like wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner, who were once considered offensive centerpieces but are now widely expected to find new homes.
With that in mind, where can Pittsburgh turn to help Roethlisberger in 2021 without breaking the bank? Here are some potential low-risk, high-reward free agents that could — and should — be on the Steelers’ radar:
Note: AAV denotes average annual value. Player ages are for the start of the 2021 season.
Projected AAV: $2-5 million
The former fourth-rounder has never played a full season and missed all but one game in 2020 due to injury, so chances are he’ll be available as a one-year flyer. Pittsburgh would probably prefer a more durable back after James Conner’s perpetual bruising, but even 12-14 games of a healthy Mack would be an upgrade here. The ex-Colts starter has been a play-maker when on the field.
Projected AAV: $1-4 million
Ingram is no workhorse at this stage of his career, as evidenced by Baltimore gradually phasing him out of the rotation in late 2020. But is there a better short-term rental for a contender at running back? The guy is a beloved teammate who’d have no trouble sharing carries with Benny Snell and whomever else Pittsburgh trots out of the backfield, and he’s always given top-notch effort.
Projected AAV: $2-5 million
At one point one of the 49ers‘ most promising ball-carriers (1,075 scrimmage yards in 2018), he’s been more of an afterthought the last two years, falling on San Francisco’s depth chart during the club’s Super Bowl run and then failing to pop with Miami during a COVID-affected 2020. Still, he’s young and has tons of speed, making him a worthy change-of-pace option.
Projected AAV: $8-10 million
Hilton isn’t exactly a “cheap” free agent, considering he’ll likely command starter’s money, but compared to the $15-18 million per year that JuJu Smith-Schuster could haul in, you might view him as a bargain. Injuries have taken their toll on the former RB1, who’s no longer an elite speedster, but with experience in the slot and juice still in the tank, he’d be a rock-solid plug-and-play vet.
Projected AAV: $7-10 million
There’s a far better chance Fitzgerald re-signs with Arizona or simply hangs up the cleats. He’s said before he’ll only play for the Cardinals. But if ever there were one city to lure him elsewhere, it’d have to be Pittsburgh, where he played his college ball. What a natural one-year experiment this would be, plugging him into JuJu’s slot role and giving him a chance to go out with a contender.
Projected AAV: $5-9 million
If the Steelers are looking to fill the slot, which seems plausible considering the payday Smith-Schuster can find elsewhere, Bourne would make for a short- and potentially long-term gamble. He’s never posted gaudy numbers in San Francisco, but he had a career-high snap count in 2020 and delivered, serving as a reliable mid-range target.
Projected AAV: $3-6 million
You don’t typically want to be in the business of signing 35-year-old slot receivers, but the Steelers will — or should — be looking for any instant help out wide, especially if JuJu walks. Amendola, of course, is best known for working the middle, where he’s often been reliable more than elusive. It’s not hard to imagine a safety valve like him quickly earning Roethlisberger’s trust.
Projected AAV: $5-8 million
Much like Amendola, Snead has been more steady than spectacular, but that counts for a lot at the slot position — especially if the Steelers run anything close to the offense they did in 2020, when Roethlisberger dinked and dunked his way down the field. Whether new coordinator Matt Canada opens up the passing game or limits Ben’s attempts, Snead would be an efficient short-area target.