The 2013 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line gave new meaning to the phrase patchwork.
Injuries happen on offensive lines all across the NFL. It's a dangerous place to ply you're trade, and historically the Steelers have always seemed to suffer as bad or worse than any other franchise. But 2013 got off to a very, very bad start, and only got worse from there.
Maurkice Pouncey went down for season only a handful of snaps into the Week 1 opener against the Titans. Mike Adams was benched by week 6 due to down right terrible play. Then Pouncey's replacement Fernando Velasco went down with an Achilles tear in a Week 13 clash with the Ravens.
Only RT Marcus Gilbert started in all 16 games last season. Behind him guards David Decastro and Ramon Foster started 15 games each, but both played with some niggling injuries that affected their play from time to time.
However it was not entirely doom and gloom. From the ashes of the offensive line rose a phoenix or two. Fernando Velsaco stepped in off the street to replace Pouncey and did a thoroughly admirable job before injury, earning the praise and thanks of Steelers nation in the process.
Velasco's replacement at center, Cody Wallace, impressed the coaching staff so much he earned a three-year contract extension with the Steelers.
But by far the bird that shined the brightest (to extend the metaphor) was Kelvin Beachum, a 7th round draft pick in his second year with the Steelers.
Seen as a utility lineman capable of backing up all 5 positions heading into 2013, any realistic organisational expectations for Beachum at that point had been met or surpassed . He even saw some action at tight end in pre-season and in training, a testament to his versatility.
Of course, with the rash of injuries which occurred, Beachum's versatility was called upon often, and he played snaps at center, guard and tackle for the Steelers throughout 2013.
However it was not until the fifth game of the season, when Beachum replaced failing tackle Mike Adams, that he became the little engine that could (yes, he's a train now not a bird.)
Beachum stepped in week 6 against the Jets at left tackle, and would hold onto the spot virtually until the end of the season, missing one game due to injury in Week 14. He wasn't perfect from the first snap, his pass protection was up and down, his run blocking down right awful on occasion.
However, with a few games under his belt and increased use of the no-huddle offense, Beachum developed into a borderline starting caliber left tackle for the remainder of the season. That may not sound like staunch praise for the 25 year old, but considering where he started in training camp and where he ended, the Steelers look either very lucky or very clever for selecting him in the seventh round.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, in his end-of-season round up, credited Beachum with stabilizing the offensive line, which managed to halt the record shattering pace of sacks it was allowing on Ben Roethlisberger through the first half of the season. Like the offense as a whole, the Steelers offensive line was trending up in the last eight games of the season.
So where does that leave Beachum now?
Heading into his third training camp, he's the front runner, and the left tackle spot is his to lose. The Steelers did not draft an offensive lineman untill the 5th round in this years draft, Wesley Johnson, so just going by the numbers Beachum stands a good chance to be protecting Roethlisberger's blind side come week 1 of the season.
His primary competition is draft class comrade Mike Adams, selected in the second round of 2012. Adams' tryout at left tackle last year was nothing short of horrendous, and his 2013 off-season incident and subsequent legal proceedings have presumably made him an unpopular figure with the Steelers front office.
That said, Adams does boast impressive physical gifts, standing 6-foot-7 in and weighing in around 325 pounds. New offensive line coach Mike Munchak, a technician and a hugely successful teacher, could well work wonders with the black sheep of the offensive line. In addition there is the matter of his high draft pedigree. Entering only his third year, I do not imagine the Steelers are willing to give up on a second round investment, no matter how much rope he may have used up.
Between the trio of Adams, Beachum and Marcus Gilbert, two will be starting at tackle come September. Gilbert played all 16 games at right tackle in 2013, and many believe Adams is much more of a natural right tackle than a left. Whilst the competition at the tackle position should make for a very compelling story during training camp, I do not see either man challenging Beachum for the blind side. If Gilbert was a left tackle, he wouldn't have been beat out by Adams last year, and despite a promising showing against the Dolphins in Week 14 I think Adams has shown he's much more suited to playing on the right as well.
Kelvin Beachum is not a prototypical NFL left tackle. Joe Thomas, long considered the premier player at the position, is 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds. Beachum is 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds.
Physically, Beachum is often, if not always over matched. But there are ways he can make up for his physical limitations. Mastering the technical aspects of the position, proper hand and foot placement, utilizing leverage, all of those things can help Beachum become not just the Steelers starting left tackle, but a good one.
He's already being working with the Steelers former tackle and legendary technician Tunch Ilkin, and again he could not have a better teacher for the job than Mike Munchak. Both Munchak and Ilkin could not ask for a better pupil.
Beachum graduated college with a degree in economics and a masters in liberal studies. He can play all five positions on the offensive line, and as a 7th round pick he became the Steelers starting left tackle in only his second year. One might argue he did so by default, but there's no denying that he is an extremely intelligent, hard working guy.
Doing things the hard way like Beachum did, fighting to make the 53-man roster then learning every position along the line, thats indicative of a certain type of character. Call it a chip on his shoulder or whatever you want. Either way his hard work and determination have got him to the top of the pile in a very short space of time.
He's not going to magically grow three inches and put on 30 pounds, and those limitations are never going to disappear. A player like him must be precise and alert on every single snap, must be perfect on every down if he is to going to win the battle at the second most important position on the offense.
The amount of work required for Beachum to go from average to good will be tremendous, from good to great even more so. But for better or worse Kelvin Beachum is the Steelers starting left tackle with very little competition in the rear view mirror.