With as much as 10 starters for the free company, will 2020 be a “final trip” for Steelers as we all know them?

Tech-wise, there were a few months earlier this year that TJ Watt was in the final year of his contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Of course, the Steelers exercised their fifth year option on Watt in April and extended it to 2021. And Watt’s status as one of the best players in the league assures the Steelers will do whatever they can to keep Pittsburgh long after that.

But can it also be an excessively large number of Watt teammates? Especially with up to 10 players of the starter caliber with expiring contracts whose playing time with the Steelers could end as early as next month?

“I don’t even know who is a free agent and who is not and all that stuff,” said Watt. “All I know is that I love to play with these guys we have in this locker room and that we still have a lot to do.”

With the 11: 1 start into the game on Sunday evening at the Buffalo Bills, it is certainly enough motivation to secure the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl title. But that this might be some sort of “last ride” with the roster currently being built could also give the Steelers a boost down the track.

Eighteen players are slated to become unrestricted free agents later this winter, and another (tight end Vance McDonald) has a club option that should be picked up in 2021.

While this raw number of UFAs isn’t particularly uncommon, the number of key contributors is. Depending on how you define it, there will be six to ten starters in the final season of your contracts.

For an organization that prides itself on principles like continuity, clings to native talent, and locks up its best players, having so many in the open market is an anomaly.

For example, in the last off-season, the only starter to become an unrestricted free agent was the defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. In the previous off-season, there were no full-time starters in 2019 free agents. In 2018, the only starters to hit the market were offensive lineman Chris Hubbard (a backup who only started because of an injury) and security guard Mike Mitchell (whom the Steelers wanted to let go of at the age of 31 anyway).

Monday’s game against the New York Giants could be the final prelude as a teammate for members of the 2017 Draft Class, which looks like one of the best of the Steelers in recent years. Http://t.co/Yp24KBjqQJ

– Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) September 11, 2020

The point is, the Steelers don’t usually allow too many key contributors to play on “Wandering Years”. However, the uniqueness of 2020 resulted in a contractual situation that is perhaps unprecedented in 28 years of unrestricted free action from Steelers.

Most famously, the Steelers were just at the end of a cycle of a heavy class of free agents:

  • The 2017 draft was fruitful, and the standard four-year rookie contracts are available to recipient JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is bringing back James Conner, cornerback Cameron Sutton and Watt (who had the fifth year option as first-round players).
  • Add another ex-top classic that has received both an option and a franchise tag (linebacker Bud Dupree).
  • A former reclamation project that finally won a starting job in its fourth NFL season (injured right tackle against Zach Banner)
  • A pair of former uncovered players who happen to start seasons at the same time (Guard Matt Feiler and Nickelecke Mike Hilton)
  • A recent mid-season takeover (linebacker Avery Williamson)
  • Two veterans hitting their second Steelers deal – against Alejendro Villanueva and defenseman Tyson Alualu – and still playing at a sufficiently high level could warrant new deals in their mid-30s, a proverbial “good problem” the Steelers probably didn’t have expect

In other words, the Steelers 2021 free agent class is a big one, partly due to some atypical circumstances.

On the other hand, no circumstances are as untypical as a global pandemic. And this year’s coronavirus outbreak affected NFL teams so nothing went as usual. The drop in income this season will result in a lower or “flat” salary cap for the next season, which makes it difficult to calculate contract extensions.

The only deal the Steelers made this year was with Cameron Heyward, a player of so great importance on and off the field that his expansion had to be completed regardless of the financial implications of covid-19. But if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, it would be fair to assume the Steelers could have talked more aggressively with some of their other soon-to-be-free agents over summer contract talks.

General Manager Kevin Colbert said so during his last media availability in August. However, because the team was so insecure, it had to stick to the status quo to a large extent.

“But if we think we have a nice team, we will do our best,” said Colbert. “And we will continue to develop and try to be as competitive as possible every season.” ”

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Chris Adamski is a contributor to Tribune Review. You can contact Chris by email at cadamski@triblive.com or on Twitter.

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