PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are inching closer to their restricted free agent deadline of March 17, with plenty of negotiations left to complete.
With 24 players ready to hit the open market, the Steelers won't be resining everyone they had on the roster in 2020. And despite having a team built for an 11-0 start, change is a good thing for Pittsburgh this offseason.
When it comes down to it, these are the must-keeps and the can let go players on their free agent list. We'll leave JuJu Smith-Schuster out of it because, frankly, his/the team's decision to stay or leave isn't a make-or-break deal.
Instead, we'll start with these four players...
Mike Hilton - We're working under the assumption the Steelers don't have to cut Joe Haden and aren't in need of an outside cornerback. If that's the case, keeping Cameron Sutton over Hilton makes sense.
There isn't a cornerback in Pittsburgh better than Hilton, though. The 26-year-old has earned the money he'll make this offseason, and if the Steelers want to keep their secondary as strong as possible, he's priority one on their free agent list.
Zach Banner - The Steelers could live out their days with Chuks Okorafor playing right tackle and hoping he proves to be a worthy starter for all 16 games. Or, they can sign Banner, move Okorafor to jumbo tackle and draft someone to compete at left tackle.
Either way, it means keeping Banner around is pretty high on the list. Everyone in the city loves him, he clearly earned the starting job last season and now has even more to prove in 2021. Let the big man stay.
Tyson Alualu - Alualu should be very cheap in free agency, loves the city of Pittsburgh and is 33-years-old. From an outsider's opinion, it feels like he should be very content finishing out his career with the Steelers, and they should be content letting him do so.
Alualu was as big of a part of the Steelers' defensive front as anyone else. Trying to replace him with Isaiah Buggs and company didn't prove sufficient, and until there's a younger, better option, keeping the veteran around is a must.
Robert Spillane/Marcus Allen - This is a weird one because Allen and Spillane stick around for different reasons. For Spillane, you keep him in hopes of becoming a starting inside linebacker in the NFL. He doesn't need to outplay Vince Williams in 2021, but should be part of the mix, with expectations of taking on the starting role in 2022.
For Allen, it more of a backup option. Let him play those third down passing situations like he did in 2020. On top of defense, he's a valuable special teamer and should be very cheap on the open market.
Must Let Walk
Bud Dupree - This one sucks for everyone, but Dupree is worth a brinks truck and the Steelers don't have any to bring to town. Alex Highsmith played well enough to know he's the future at the position, which means there's not a whole ton of desperation to keep Dupree around.
Matt Feiler - There's no need to keep a guard when Kevin Dotson is the future of the position. The rookie outplayed every veteran within the starting five, Feiler included.
A move back to right tackle will benefit Feiler in free agency, and hopefully, his tape from 2019 holds strong enough to get him a deal worthy of a starting lineman. Just not in Pittsburgh.
Alejandro Villanueva - Even without a left tackle to replace him, keeping Villanueva means the Steelers have given up on fixing the offensive line before they even got started. Villanueva looked old in 2020 and a step too slow to be part of a changing offense.
James Conner - This one is pretty obvious. The Steelers need a consistent feature running back and Conner needs a fresh start. For both parties, sticking out another contract is only going to lead to more letdowns between the two.
The Steelers need to find a new running back either in the NFL Draft or free agency. And Conner needs to head somewhere without starting job pressure and show another NFL team he can be part of an offense.