The Pittsburgh Steelers are currently on their annual bye week and as I do every year when that part of the schedule takes place, it’s time to take another look at the players currently on the 53-man roster who are scheduled to be free agents after the season is over and as part of the process, predict their futures.
Unrestricted Free Agents (13)
RB Le’Veon Bell – When the Steelers 2016 season is finally over, Bell will obviously be the highest priority potential unrestricted free agent being as his rookie contract will be expiring. How they handle him will play a big role in not only what transpires over the course of the offseason from a business standpoint, but potentially the draft as well. To prevent Bell from becoming an unrestricted free agent in the March, the Steelers must either get him signed to a lucrative contract extension or place the franchise tag on the running back. Getting a new deal in place in February would potentially result in him having a lower yearly price tag. It’s hard to imagine the Steelers just letting Bell walk off uncontested as an unrestricted free agent. One way or another, I fully expect Bell to be a Steeler in 2017 and even that means letting him play on a one-year tag.
ILB Lawrence Timmons – The Steelers decided not to extend Timmons prior to the start of the 2016 regular season. Instead, they chose to extend inside linebacker Vince Williams at a very reasonable price. So far this season, we have seen Timmons come off the field quite a bit on obvious passing downs just as he did late last year. At this point, the only way Timmons returns to the Steelers in 2017 is via a very affordable multi-year contract. In other words, they might just let their former first-round draft pick explore his market value in free agency. Timmons obviously would like to finish his career where it started so I am not ready to say that he’s currently playing his final year in Pittsburgh.
OLB Jarvis Jones – While Jones is playing well so far this season, he has still yet to record a sack. He’s been fairly stout again against the run once again so at least there’s that positive. The Steelers decided against picking up Jones’ option year this past offseason and you can’t blame them for taking that course of action. Jones will likely be afforded to test free agency in March and the result of that will more than likely be him playing for a different team in 2017.
RB DeAngelo Williams – Assuming Williams wants to play in Pittsburgh in 2017, the only way that happens is if he signs a very inexpensive contract like the one he agreed to with the Steelers in 2015. It’s important to keep in mind that he will turn 34 in March and while he could ultimately receive some attention from other teams during free agency, his market value will be limited. At this point, it’s probably a coin-flip as whether Williams will be a Steeler in 2017.
OLB James Harrison – Harrison now probably has 9 regular season games left in his NFL career. He has yet to record a sack so far this season and appears to be slowly losing snaps to Jones on the right side of the Steelers defense. The Steelers need to get younger at the outside linebacker position and it’s hard to imagine that Harrison will be back in 2017. He’ll more than likely retire again.
WR Markus Wheaton – Wheaton hasn’t done much so far this season due to him already missing several games due to a shoulder injury. He now has 9 regular season games remaining to improve his market value as he’ll undoubtedly be allowed to test free agency in March. It’s hard to imagine that Wheaton will be re-signed and thus I fully expect to see him wearing a different uniform in 2017.
QB Landry Jones – While Jones play this past Sunday against the New England Patriots was decent, it still wasn’t good enough to win the game. The Steelers added Zach Mettenberger to the roster just prior to the start of the 2016 regular season and one would think the organization views him as their future backup to starter Ben Roethlisberger. Jones is likely to get some limited attention from a few different teams during free agency and thus I fully don’t expect him being back in Pittsburgh in 2017.
DE Ricardo Mathews – Mathews is just a reserve defensive lineman with the Steelers and he hasn’t stuck out on tape much during his limited playing time. I view Mathews as a one-year depth addition and the only way he returns in 2017 is if he signs another one-year contract for the minimum as that should remain his market value.
S Shamarko Thomas – Thomas has already missed a few games so far this season because of a groin injury and that certainly isn’t helping his cause when it comes to his market value. While Thomas has shown to be an asset on special teams so far during his career, that’s where his upside ends. I fully expect Thomas to sign elsewhere during free agency at near a minimum salary amount.
C/G Cody Wallace – Wallace has yet to play in a game so far this season because of a knee injury that he suffered during the preseason. In the meantime, former undrafted free agent interior lineman B.J. Finney has shown that he can likely be the team’s future swingman and spot starter. Wallace will be allowed to test free agency in March and I don’t expect him to play in Pittsburgh in 2017.
TE David Johnson – Johnson might not even be with the Steelers right now had tight end Ladarius Green been able to quickly recover from his offseason ankle surgery. While Johnson has been the Steelers best blocking tight end so far this season, he’s no real threat when it comes to him being a pass catcher. Johnson’s days are likely numbered at this point and it’s hard to imagine him wearing the Black and Gold in 2017.
LS Greg Warren – Warren keeps on going just like the Energizer Bunny. He’s still a reliable long snapper and assuming he’s willing to play one more year for the veteran minimum, it’s hard not seeing him back in 2017.
LB Steven Johnson – Johnson currently leads the Steelers in special teams tackles and that’s exactly what he was signed to do. With that said, he’s just a one-year player with minimal value. He will likely be allowed to test free agency in March and still looking for a new team well into June. At this point, it’s hard to see him being retained during the offseason. If he does re-sign, it will be another one-year contract for the minimum with no guarantees that he makes the final 53-man roster in 2017.
Restricted Free Agents: (2)
T Chris Hubbard – Hubbard has started three games so far this season at right tackle in place of injured starter Marcus Gilbert and he has represented himself well. Being as Hubbard will be a restricted free agent during the offseason, the Steelers would need to give him a restricted tender at some level to try to prevent him from leaving during the offseason. Such a tender would likely be at the lowest level with only the right to match an offer from another team should he ultimately receive one. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Steelers didn’t tender him at all in an effort to get him back in the fold for one more year at a lower price.
CB Ross Cockrell – Due to their perceived lack of cornerback depth, the Steelers will more than likely tender Cockrell at the lowest level ahead of free agency and thus I fully expect he’ll be back competing for a roster spot in 2017. Cockrell is currently a starter for the Steelers. There’s an outside chance he could get a longer deal from the Steelers if the price is right and there isn’t much guaranteed money involved.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents: (13)
The Steelers currently have several players who are scheduled to be exclusive rights free agents after the 2016 season is over and a few them are on the team’s Reserve/Injured list. Leading the list of players who are likely receive one-year minimum tenders that they must accept are OLB Anthony Chickillo, C/G B.J. Finney, K Chris Boswell, FB Roosevelt Nix, and T Alejandro Villanueva.
TE Xavier Grimble, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, S Jordan Dangerfield, WR Cobi Hamilton and ILB L.J. Fort are a few other players who could receive exclusive rights tenders from the Steelers as well and this assumes each can stick on the 53-man roster for the remainder of the 2016 season.
The remaining three players on that list, LB Kevin Anderson, C/G Valerian Ume-Ezeoke and G Cole Manhart, are all unlikely to receive minimum salary offers from the Steelers once healthy.