Let's continue with our breakdown of the various Pittsburgh Steelers players who saw their contracts expire after the 2010 season. Next up is Trai Essex, a guy that's hard to assess -- at least in black or white terms. Let's try our best though.
2010 Salary: $800k
The back story: While doing a bit of research on Essex for this post, I was somewhat shocked to remember that he was a third-round draft pick back in 2005. Every draft pick in the NFL is a crap shoot to a certain degree, but you definitely hope that you bat a high percentage with your top picks, including those guys taken in the third round. It would be wildly unfair to say that Essex has been a 'bust' or not provided valuable contributions to the Steelers the past seven years. Heck, Essex even started four games as a rookie back in '05. He would not start another game until the '09 season, when the departure of Alan Faneca via free agency opened the door for the Northwestern grad to play. Essex would start all 16 games at right guard. This past season, he returned to his more natural reserve role, though he did start five games.
Essex's value lies in his versatility. He can fill in at four positions along the offensive line (center excluded). That's nothing to sneeze at. Look no further than Super Bowl XLV when Essex replaced Flozell Adams at right tackle for a few series after Adams hurt himself in the first quarter.
The BTSC Consensus: Again, the peanut gallery is split. A fair number of you would like the Steelers try to retain the versatile Essex for one or two years, while plenty others would prefer to cut ties with him after seven seasons.
What I'd do: I personally would not offer Essex a deal to return. If additional roster spots were added as part of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, than forget what I just said. But assuming there's still just 53 roster spots available, I think it would make more sense to move on. At 28 years of age, Essex should be able to command a 2-3 year deal from some team, likely in the $650-800k per year range. Essex's last contract paid him nearly that much, and remember, that was coming off three straight seasons in which he did very little. This past two years Essex has played a lot more, and done a fairly good job when given a chance to play.
Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, I think the Steelers have enough depth on the offensive line. The trick is adding one or two more really talented pieces. Between Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky, Chris Kemoeatu, and potentially a 2011 Draft pick, my take is that the guard position is in better shape than most realize. Legursky could be an X-factor actually, as he generally looked quite impressive -- be it at center or at guard -- in 2010. Throw in the dirt cheap Ramon Foster as a viable reserve at guard, and there's no real need to have a serviceable swing guy taking a hat on the depth chart. And that's even more true if the Steelers plan to draft a guard early on in the '11 Draft.
I'll save my commentary about how the pieces could be shuffled at offensive tackle, but as it relates to Essex, I'll just say that he's better suited to fill in at guard than on the outside. This Steelers offensive line has made the transition from 'bad' to 'good', or at worst 'average'. Now it's time to take the next big step(s) to becoming a 'very good' and hopefully even 'great' line. That's not going to happen by keeping guys like Essex around. I hate typing that because it's hard to understate how useful he's been in recent years. But now that the personnel has improved, and assuming the injury bug doesn't strike in such a malicious way in '11, the Steelers have less use for Essex -- a versatile asset, but one whose ceiling leaves plenty to be desired.