Despite fielding a roster that includes a dozen former Pro Bowlers and a future Hall of Fame quarterback, longtime Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has managed to keep Pittsburgh out of the red as it relates to the team's salary cap. His management of the Steelers' salary cap is one of the reasons why Pittsburgh has been one of the NFL's most consistent teams since Colbert joined the team's front office in 2000. One of the reasons why the Steelers were able to go out and sign tight end Eric Ebron, offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski and fullback Derek Watt is the fact that they have four former Pro Bowlers who have a combined cap hit of $10.5 million. Each of those payers are included in Pittsburgh's top five value contracts.
On every championship roster, you'll find a number of salary cap bargains. Typically, these players are on their rookie contracts. Sometimes, they are signed in free agency to one-year prove-it contracts. So today we're going to dive a bit deeper into the Steelers' roster to pinpoint the five players who present the biggest "value" for the franchise from a salary cap standpoint. We will be referencing Spotrac for all cap numbers, using each player's 2020 cap hit, and ranking them in order of value.
1. Minkah Fitzpatrick, free safety
2020 salary cap hit: $1.96 million
The Steelers are definitely not regretting their decision to trade last year's first-round pick to the Dolphins in exchange for Fitzpatrick, the second-best safety in CBS Sports' Patrik Walker's recent rankings of the league's top defensive backs. The Chiefs' Tyrann Mathieu, the top-ranked safety on Walker's list, makes $14 million annually.
In 14 games with the Steelers last season, Fitzpatrick, who is entering the third year of his rookie contract, earned All-Pro honors after recording five interceptions, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He also scored two touchdowns while helping Pittsburgh's defense finish third in the league in passing yards allowed and fifth in points allowed.
2. T.J. Watt, edge rusher
2020 salary cap hit: $2.95 million
A two-time Pro Bowler, Watt, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, had his fifth-year option picked up by the Steelers earlier this offseason. Whenever he receives his new contract, Watt will likely be looking to earn at least $20 million annually, as the league's top-five highest-paid outside linebackers each make at least $18 million annually, with Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack earning $23.5 million per season.
The 30th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Watt has 34.5 sacks, 36 tackles for loss, eight forced fumbles and three interceptions in three seasons with the Steelers. He filled up the stat sheet in 2019, setting career highs in sacks (14.5), tackles for loss (14), fumble recoveries (four) and interceptions (two) while leading the league with eight forced fumbles.
3. JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver
2020 salary cap hit: $1.34 million
The 62nd overall pick in the 2017 draft, Smith-Schuster seemed destined for an early contract extension after earning team MVP honors in 2018. But after a rocky 2019 season that saw him record career lows in receptions (42), yards (552), and touchdowns (three), Smith-Schuster will likely have to play the 2020 season under his rookie contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2021.
Smith-Schuster, who endured several injuries throughout the course of the 2019 season, should be primed for a bounceback season in 2020. Ben Roethlisberger is expected to be ready for the start of the season after missing most of 2019 with an elbow injury. Diontae Johnson's continued emergence should also help open up things for Smith-Schuster, while the addition of rookie Chase Claypool should allow Smith-Schuster to return to the slot, where he was highly successful during the first two seasons of his career.
4. James Conner, running back
2020 salary cap hit: $1.09 million
The third member of Pittsburgh's 2017 draft class to find a spot on this list, Conner, a 2018 Pro Bowler, is coming off a disappointing 2019 season that saw him miss six games due to injury. Conner, a former third-round pick, was productive when he was on the field in 2019, scoring seven touchdowns and averaging a respectable four yards per carry.
While his productivity has never been in question, Conner's durability is still a question mark as he enters the final season under his rookie contract. While Conner should still be considered Pittsburgh's primary ballcarrier when he's healthy, the Steelers may decide to lessen his workload after selecting former Maryland running back Anthony McFarland in the fourth round. Pittsburgh's backfield also includes 2018 fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels and 2019 fourth-round pick Benny Snell, who saw a considerable amount of reps in relief of Conner during his rookie season.
5. Diontae Johnson, wide receiver
2020 salary cap hit: $972,946
While fellow 2019 rookie Devin Bush (who carries a 2020 salary cap hit of $4,289,038) gave him a run for his money, Johnson makes the cut as the team's fifth-best value contract entering the 2020 season. The 66th overall pick in last year's draft, the former Toledo Rocket led the Steelers in receptions (59) and touchdown catches (five) last season while finishing second on the team with 680 receiving yards.
The 2018 Mid-American Conference Special Teams Player of the Year, Johnson led the NFL last season with an average of 12.4 yards per punt return. He also recorded the league's punt return of the season, an 85-yard return for a score during Pittsburgh's Week 14 win over the Cardinals. Johnson's success earned him second-team All-Pro honors, as he was one of three Steelers to earn All-Pro status last season.