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Pittsburgh Steelers' NFL free-agent signings 2021: JuJu is back, but creates more needs

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Why JuJu opted to remain in Pittsburgh (1:00)

Adam Schefter reports on JuJu Smith-Schuster taking a pay cut to remain with the Steelers for another season. (1:00)

NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17, which meant free-agent signings could be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.

The Pittsburgh Steelers aren't known for fireworks during free agency, and with the cap crunch, this year won't be any different. The Steelers will have to build for the future through the draft, but they have a little wiggle room to bring in inexpensive free agents before selecting at No. 24 overall when the NFL draft begins on May 29.

Here's a breakdown of every 2021 NFL free-agent signing by the Steelers, and how each will impact the upcoming season:

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR

Smith-Schuster, 24, will remain with the Steelers on a one-year deal.

What it means: Ben Roethlisberger's favorite target is back in Pittsburgh for at least one more season. With the wide receiver market never quite developing, Smith-Schuster opted to take a one-year deal in Pittsburgh at a steep discount to remain with Roethlisberger for one more season. The wide receiver position is now set and fortified for the season with Smith-Schuster's return and the Steelers get to keep a gritty player who made his mark fighting for YAC on third downs.

What's the risk: To create room for Smith-Schuster, the Steelers granted permission to cornerback Steve Nelson to seek a trade, Adam Schefter reported. The move would create a little more than $8 million in cap space, but it does leave the defense without a fifth starter. It also makes cornerback a position of need to address in free agency or the draft. But by re-signing Smith-Schuster for just one season, the Steelers could have a jump on bringing him back on a bigger, multi-year deal when the salary cap increases for the 2022 season.

Cameron Sutton, CB

The Steelers retained Sutton, 26, with a two-year, $9 million deal.

What it means: The Steelers prioritized keeping one of their own by signing Sutton to a two-year deal. Sutton was a key piece in the defense last year as a versatile defensive back, plugging holes at corner and nickel when the secondary was thin due to injuries. With nickel Mike Hilton hitting the open market, Sutton will take on an increased role in sub-packages.

What's the risk: This isn't a risky signing. The Steelers have been impressed with Sutton's ability to adapt to any role they ask him to take on. Re-signing Sutton rather than bringing in an outside corner eliminates a learning curve and keeps an important piece of the defense around for the future.


B.J. Finney, OL

The veteran offensive lineman returned to the Steelers on a one-year deal.

What it means: The Steelers' priority this offseason is offensive line depth, and bringing Finney, 29, back accomplishes that. He's a versatile lineman, who can play either center or guard, and he did both during a four-season stint with the Steelers. The Steelers are set to have a young offensive line with both Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler hitting free agency and Maurkice Pouncey retiring, but Finney brings a veteran presence to complement David DeCastro at right guard.

What's the risk: There isn't really any risk with this signing. The Steelers are plenty familiar with Finney and he was a really solid starter when he got called on to replace injured or suspended starters. The one-year deal is likely inexpensive, helping out the Steelers and their tight budget.


Zach Banner, OL

Banner stays with the Steelers on a two-year contract.

What it means: Banner earned the starting right tackle job after a training camp battle with Chuks Okorafor, but he tore his ACL in the final quarter of the season opener. Banner has been focused on establishing himself within the organization, and the team signaled that his hard work is paying off by committing to him. The Steelers already lost one offensive lineman in free agency and could lose another in Alejandro Villanueva. They have to rebuild the line to protect Ben Roethlisberger, and keeping Banner around goes a long way.

What's the risk: Banner tore his ACL in the first game, and there's always some risk signing a player coming off a significant injury. And, because of the timing of the injury, he doesn't have a ton of game experience playing tackle full time. However, the Steelers thought highly enough of his camp performance to name him the starter. He could be in play for either the right tackle job again, or could perhaps move to left tackle and compete for a starting job with a rookie draft pick.


Chris Wormley, DE

The Steelers and Wormley agreed to a two-year deal.

What it means: The Steelers continued to shop their own closet Thursday by re-signing Wormley, keeping the former Raven around after he was acquired in a trade a year ago. With such limited cap space, the Steelers have to fill holes from departures like Tyson Alualu with relatively inexpensive replacements such as Wormley. He has experience playing nose tackle from his time in Baltimore and could be an option to take over some of Alualu's duties.

What's the risk: Wormley, 27, battled injuries during training camp and throughout the season, landing on IR, but he still saw action in 13 games with one start. He recorded one sack and eight combined tackles last season. Wormley's ceiling is higher when healthy, but he has to prove he can have a completely healthy season to have more impact on the defense.


Joe Haeg, OT

Former Bucs lineman Haeg agreed to a two-year, $4.6 million deal.

What it means: A rare free-agent signing from outside the Steelers organization, Haeg won a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay a year ago. He started three games, one at left guard and two as a sixth man on the line. He's a versatile player, most often used as the sixth man, and he dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone in the Super Bowl. With the Steelers trying to reconstruct their line to protect Ben Roethlisberger, Haeg is a replacement piece who could step in for Matt Feiler or back up Kevin Dotson in the role. Or, if Zach Banner again earns a starting tackle job, he could take over Banner's role as the extra offensive lineman or be a backup tackle.

What's the risk: With such limited cap space, the Steelers spent a little more money on a backup swing lineman than he might be worth. But the Steelers needed to fortify the offensive line, and Haeg's versatility makes him a good pick. The Steelers have struck out on Super Bowl-winning linemen in free agency before, though, signing Stefen Wisniewski, formerly of the Chiefs and Eagles, a year ago and cutting him after he landed on IR last season.


Miles Killebrew, LB

The Steelers agreed to a one-year deal with former Lion Killebrew.

What it means: After not tendering LB/special teamer Ola Adeniyi, the Steelers needed to find a replacement for special teams, and Killebrew fits the bill. He played at least 75% of special teams snaps in the last three years, including 80% in 2020. He fits the mold of Steelers special teams aces like Tyler Matakevich and Adeniyi.

What's the risk: On a one-year deal, there's little risk here. The Steelers had to find a replacement for Adeniyi and they do it with a high-quality player and leader. Killebrew was formerly an NFLPA players rep with the Lions.


Cassius Marsh, LB

Marsh remains with the Steelers on a one-year deal.

What it means: Marsh only played one game for the Steelers last season, but the team apparently liked what it saw to bring him back on a one-year deal. With the departures of Adeniyi and Bud Dupree, the Steelers are thin at outside linebacker and Marsh helps fill that out. The journeyman has started nine games in his career and has 14 total tackles. A decent depth signing.

What's the risk: Marsh's sample size for the Steelers last season was small, making this a somewhat risky signing. Even so, he's been in the league since 2014, so there's plenty of tape on him and he's a known commodity at the position, making him less risky than bringing in guys more unknown to the organization.


Tyson Alualu, DT/NT

Alualu returns to Pittsburgh after initially agreeing to sign with Jacksonville.

What it means: In one of the crazier offseason moves, Alualu began free agency by initially agreeing to terms with the Jaguars, the team where he began his NFL career, but changed his mind and re-signed with Pittsburgh. It's hard to overstate his importance to the defense as a consistent run-stopping defender at nose tackle. There wasn't an obvious heir to his role, and the under-the-radar player helps solidify a defense that took significant hits in free agency.

What's the risk: Can I say none? None. In changing his mind, Alualu returns to a team that badly needed him after losing players like Mike Hilton and Bud Dupree in free agency. They released Steven Nelson, freeing up about $8.25 million in cap space, giving them room to re-sign Alualu, though the terms of his deal haven't been disclosed.