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It's almost certain that the Steelers will lose both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Bud Dupree next week via free agency. The Steelers currently have almost $6 million in salary-cap space and both Smith-Schuster and Dupree will garner $16 million per year or more on new contracts. Pittsburgh just won't be able to compete with other teams who have the cap space.
Losing Smith-Schuster and Dupree will be huge losses, but they're certainly replaceable. Dupree will be harder to replace than Smith-Schuster, however. He has really come on as a pass rusher in the last two seasons and has made tremendous strides as a run defender. At 28 years old, Dupree is peaking in his prime. Alex Highsmith showed promise in his rookie season, but it will take time for him to fully develop. It won't just happen overnight.
I'm pretty confident that the Steelers can replace Smith-Schuster. The Steelers just know how to draft wide receivers and they've replaced top-flight receivers consistently under general manager Kevin Colbert. They also have a talented wide receiving corps now minus Smith-Schuster with Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington. It's expected they'll add another receiver in the draft as well.
The Steelers are in a tough position, as they would like to retain Smith-Schuster and Dupree, but they just don't have the means to do it. Although that's the business part of the NFL, it surely doesn't help that the salary cap is down around $16 million from last year because of lost revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. And we've seen a lot of cap casualties from other teams within the last week. There has been no cap casualty yet for the Steelers, but you have to wonder if there could be one coming.
According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Joe Haden won't be cut and most likely will receive a new deal to lower his cap hit. If the Steelers were to cut Haden, it would save them $7 million in cap space.
According to cap guru Ian Whetstone of Steel City Insider, the Steelers would have to release a veteran like David DeCastro to free up $8.75 million in cap space to keep either Smith-Schuster or Dupree.
Along with DeCastro, they could also release Vince Williams, which would free up $4 million in cap space. Steven Nelson ($8.25 million cap savings) and Eric Ebron ($6 million cap savings) are also possible cap casualties to keep either Smith-Schuster or Dupree, but it's highly unlikely. With the Steelers, all of these scenarios are highly unlikely to occur except cutting Williams to free up $4 million in cap space. Nelson, who's 28 years old, could also be a candidate to have his contract extended, which would relieve some significant cap space this year.
Below is an excerpt from Whetstone's article on why he thinks it's a mistake to not cut a vested veteran to retain a rising player like Dupree or a young talent like Smith-Schuster.
"Keeping either would almost certainly cost the team a veteran such as DeCastro, and that does not seem like a bargain they’re prepared to strike. But this is where I fear the team fails to see the forest for the trees. To prevent gutting the roster of older veterans, they risk losing a significant well of younger talent that would better ensure continuity beyond 2021, in the post-Roethlisberger era. Maybe it’s simply a matter that they expect those players to command well more than they perceive their value to be.
Maybe they have a surprise up their sleeves. But I can’t shake the feeling that they’ve played this one wrong from the start."
It's an interesting thought laid out by Whetstone, and as tough as it would be to see DeCastro as a cap casualty, he is 31 years old and didn't have his best year last season. Dupree is 28 years old and is a key cog in the Steelers' defense. Dupree and T.J. Watt have become one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league the last two seasons. From the other perspective, they also have Highsmith waiting in the wings and Dupree is coming off an ACL injury.
As I mentioned, I think they'll be fine without Smith-Schuster. It's the possibility of cutting older veterans to retain Dupree that makes me wonder.