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Can Steelers Afford to Pay Top Money in WR Market?

Can the Pittsburgh Steelers afford to pay top dollar in an increasingly expensive wide receiver free agent market?

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Pittsburgh Steelers San Francisco 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk
49ers wide receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel celebrate after a touchdown, Sept. 11, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The wide receiver market around the NFL has exploded once again this offseason, with several players inking historic deals, most recently Justin Jefferson’s $140-million deal with the Minnesota Vikings signed on Monday.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been searching for a wide receiver to play on the opposite side of third-year starter George Pickens since trading Diontae Johnson to the Carolina Panthers earlier this offseason, and they have been connected to some of the top receivers available in the trade market, including San Francisco 49ers All-Pro Brandon Aiyuk.

But if the Steelers are interested in someone with a resumé like Aiyuk’s, that means they’re going to have to pay to play in that realm of receiver.

Jefferson’s contract made him the highest-paid non-quarterback in league history with a $35 million per year average annual value. But it’s not exactly out of place in the current market.

Here’s a sampling of other big-time wide receiver contracts signed this offseason:

Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings: four years, $140 million, $35 million AAV
A.J. Brown, Philadelphia Eagles: three years, $96 million, $32 million AAV
Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit Lions: four years, $120 million, $30 million AAV
Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins: three years, $84.8 million, $28.3 million AAV
DeVonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles: three years, $75 million, $25 million AAV
Nico Collins, Houston Texans: three years, $72.8 million, $24.3 million AAV
Michael Pittman, Indianapolis Colts: three years, $70 million, $23.3 million AAV
Stefon Diggs, Houston Texans: one year, $22.5 million

And that’s just the head of the chow line. CeeDee Lamb is reportedly holding out of Dallas Cowboys minicamp while seeking a new deal. The Cincinnati Bengals are up to their eyeballs in it, with Tee Higgins unhappy under the franchise tag and Ja’Marr Chase looking for a new contract. Both of them have been skipping OTAs. Even Tyreek Hill, who has three seasons left on his contract, wants a new deal with the Miami Dolphins.

It doesn’t seem likely that the trend in wide receiver contracts is going to change any time soon. So if the Steelers want to acquire Aiyuk, or another player in that realm, they’re going to need to pay up.

The first question becomes, can they afford it?

The short answer is yes. The Steelers have about $18 million in offseason salary cap space. They’ll use most of that to sign top draft picks Troy Fautanu and Zach Frazier (Fautanu signed on Monday but contract details have not yet been reported), the final two players on the roster, a practice squad, and to retain an in-season buffer.

But the Steelers can make plenty more salary cap space this offseason, if they want to. A contract extension with defensive tackle Cam Heyward could save the team nearly $10 million, and Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt both have contracts that could be re-negotiated. The Steelers can clear nearly $30 million from the rolls this summer if they need to. And while doing so would push more money into the future, that’s not really a problem, either. The Steelers have committed the fourth-least amount of salary in the 2025 season of any NFL team, and the second-least amount in 2026. They can certainly take on a major salary commitment like a big-time wide receiver.

The real question is whether they should or will. The Steelers have that salary cap space, in part, because they have an unresolved situation at quarterback, with Russell Wilson and Justin Fields both entering contract years and no clarity about which, if either, the team may want to attempt to retain into the future.

Signing a big-money wide receiver without anyone to throw him the ball feels like it’s putting the cart before the horse. There’s also the question of how much the Steelers will actually throw the ball in Arthur Smith’s offense. George Pickens has the potential to establish himself as a solid starter. Will they throw enough to warrant a $30 million investment in the position, on top of a long-term extension for Pickens, who will be a free agent in 2026?

There’s also the question of what happens with tight end Pat Freiermuth, who is entering a contract year, and could take up a good bit of that future cap space if he is signed to an extension. Smith’s offenses have frequently used their tight ends as a de-facto second wide receiver.

If the right player or the right deal comes along, Omar Khan has the flexibility to make it work, but aiming slightly lower than the very top of the market, or for a shorter term than the three- and four-year big-money deals being handed out right now, might make more sense for the Steelers.

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Edward Carmichael
Edward Carmichael
June 4, 2024 11:24 am

as a true Steelers fan, after Justin Jefferson signed 4yr $140 Million and $110 million guaranteed it proves my point that I’m glad that going through the draft is much cheaper and/or signing players from U.F.L. is way cheaper also so I don’t see the Steelers paying Brandon Aiyuk that kind of

Jesus Christani
Jesus Christani
June 4, 2024 1:51 pm

Of course, as a NFL GM, you have to balance the check book, so to speak… BUT… If your desire is to win Super Bowls in the 21st century, you need to pay your superstar players… In Kansas City, there is this QB who is ‘really’ worth about $500 mil a year… a smart GM will pay whatever is necessary to keep him off the free agent market… Steelers Nation, if you want to when Super Bowls, you pay your productive stars… if you don’t care about winning Super Bowls then bring Matt Canada and Mitch Trubisky back and stop… Read more »