After making their big free agency splash on day one by signing safety Mike Mitchell, the Pittsburgh Steelers got back to business as usual yesterday by signing some of their more unheralded reserve players to modest contracts.
Among those was interior offensive lineman Cody Wallace, of whom I and most others had many questions when the Steelers first brought him in at the end of the preseason.
Wallace responded by proving his doubters wrong over the final month of the season, after he was forced to take over the starting center position when Fernando Velasco tore his Achilles against the Baltimore Ravens.
Despite being drafted in the fourth round in the 2008 draft, Wallace’s career had been limited to 15 total snaps on offense before joining the Steelers. Even John Malecki, the lineman the Steelers replaced in order to add Wallace, had slightly more playing time than that in less seasons.
After getting his beak wet at guard in a few games, Wallace entered the starting lineup at center with four weeks to play. After going through some growing pains in the first two games, which included four penalties, he really settled down and showed well in the final two games of the season.
Much of Wallace’s tenure on the line, in fact, coincided with some of the most efficient and effective performances on the ground of the season, which culminated in Le’Veon Bell’s 100-yard game in Green Bay in the snow.
Most surprising was the nasty streak and physicality that of Wallace’s performance, which seemed unusual for somebody which such little playing experience in the regular season. Clearly he had no issue making his opponents understand that he belonged.
The Steelers obviously felt the same way, because they signed him to a contract spanning over the next three seasons.
So what does this mean for Velasco, and the chances of the Steelers bringing both of their emergency starters at center from last season?
I think that depends a lot on him.
Velasco came to the Steelers having already been a starter. He started every game for the Tennessee Titans in 2012, with 13 of those starts coming at center. He was somewhat of a surprise cut after Tennessee used free agency to address their offensive line. He was available after the first week of the season because he was looking for a starting opportunity, not because he couldn’t play.
Velasco is, of course, currently rehabbing an Achilles injury, so it’s likely that his market will be delayed, perhaps well into the summer, as was the case for Max Starks in 2012 when he tore his ACL and the Steelers waited to see how he recovered.
Velasco knows that with Maurkice Pouncey returning, he’s not in a position to start. And with Wallace already in the picture, he may not even be the first center off the bench. For as much as he loved the team and the city of Pittsburgh, I suspect that he’s still at a point in his career where he believes he is a starting offensive lineman.
On the other hand, by the time Velasco is ready to go, the Steelers should have access to the cap savings from LaMarr Woodley’s release, so if they really wanted him and were willing to sign him, they could afford to. Would it be worth it for a backup that may not even be the first off the bench for the interior of the line? Probably not.
While I’m sure the Steelers would like to have Velasco back, it will be up the him to be willing to accept minimum terms and a minimum role on the team this season, having made up their minds on Wallace.