After two preseason games during which fourth-year right tackle Marcus Gilbert has been arguably the team’s best—and unquestionably its most improved—offensive lineman, the Pittsburgh Steelers rewarded the veteran entering the final year of his rookie contract with a five-year extension worth around $30 million.
Gilbert’s best friend and former college teammate, center Maurkice Pouncey, was also entering the final year of his rookie contract before he, too, signed an extension that will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2019 season.
The Steelers thus have two pieces of their offensive line now locked up long-term. But it leaves me wondering: what happens next year?
The fact of the matter is that the Steelers will have four key offensive linemen entering the final year of their rookie contract next year—though they will assuredly exercise the fifth-year option on former 2012 first-round draft pick David DeCastro.
That still leaves three other linemen, however, including two starters, in contract flux after this season: namely, Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, and Mike Adams.
Beachum and Adams, of course, are younger players, just entering their third season and playing on their rookie contract. Foster is a veteran entering his sixth season and is in the second year of a three-year contract. He will be 30 when he hits free agency in 2016.
Although the salary cap is expected to climb precipitously once again next offseason, the Steelers will have to decide what exactly they intend to do with their offensive line. How many of them can they afford to invest in long-term?
The matter is complicated when considering the inevitable quarterback contract extension due next season with Ben Roethlisberger, which will likely average over $20 million in annual value.
Of course, the reality is that neither Foster nor Beachum will likely command top salary at their respective positions when they hit the open market. Neither did Gilbert. DeCastro, of course, could very well be another matter, who like Pouncey could stand to command at-or-near top-level pay per position.
But with marginal-value contracts at the other starting offensive line positions, it is conceivable that the Steelers could keep this unit intact for a while longer. Foster, at 28, is the oldest of the group, and may be the least likely to return once his contract is up if he wants to play for a big contract, but that doesn’t seem to be his style.
Then again, his style isn’t necessarily ideal for Mike Munchak’s offensive line schemes. Nevertheless, replacing him doesn’t seem to be in the cards or on the horizon in the near future.
Adams is the truly forgotten man. A former second-round pick entering just his third season, it almost seems as though he is already destined to be a backup for his career. He does have two seasons left to turn it around, but the Steelers have shown in recent years that they are willing to walk away from high draft picks who have not panned out.
It’s not easy keeping an offensive line together, especially when one or more of them reaches the top level of their position. The Steelers know what it’s like to lose an All-Pro lineman when Alan Faneca left the team in 2007. They’ve succeeded in locking up two pieces of the line long-term, but what happens with the rest remains to be seen.