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Steelers offensive line: Dollars and sense

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Free agency will change everything, of course, but it's not too early to dig into who the Steelers might target in the draft, and why. We might as well start with BTSC's traditional bone of contention: the offensive line.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Name

Position

Drafted

Age

K Size

K Ends After:

Kelvin Beachum

T

2012

25

$671,474

Next Year

Marcus Gilbert

T

2011

26

≈ $6 M.

2019

Maurkice Pouncey

C

2010

25

≈ $9 M.

2019

Ramon Foster

G

2009

29

$2.15 M

Next Year

David DeCastro

G

2012

25

≈ $2.5 M.

Next Year*

Mike Adams

T

2012

24

≈ $1 M.

Next Year

Cody Wallace

C/G

2008

30

$1.35 M.

2016

Chris Hubbard

G

2013

23

Min.(?)

Next Year

Mitchell Van Dyk

T

2014

Min.

---

Alejandro Villanueva

T

2014

26

Min.

---

*The team has an option to extend DeCastro for an extra year, through 2016.

Financial Summary:

STARTERS: Two starters signed to long-term deals, one expensive (Pouncey) and one full-priced (Gilbert). The remaining three starters become free agents after the 2015 season, one who has been moderately priced and may remain so (Foster) and two who will need to be paid significantly more than they currently receive (Beachum and DeCastro).

BACKUPS: The primary backup at tackle (Adams) also becomes a free agent after 2015. The primary backup at center (Wallace) is signed through 2016 at a moderate price, while the backup at guard (Hubbard) was just signed to a one-year deal.

DEVELOPMENTAL: There are two developmental tackles on the roster (Van Dyk and Villanueva), but no interior linemen.

Some Analysis Before Looking At Wants & Needs:

We here at BTSC are offensive line groupies. Maybe it's because two of our best analysts (Paper Champions and Steel34D) are self-avowed build from the trenches types. Maybe it's because our Editor in Chief loves his linemen almost as much as they do. Or maybe it's in the DNA. The cause is irrelevant so long as we name the bias up front rather than letting it lurk in the shadows - especially when the Front Office rarely shows evidence that it feels the same kind of urgency that we do.

I don't mean to imply that the team ignores its offensive line. Two 1st rounders bookended by two 2nd rounders are enough to prove that isn't true. It's just that Colbert & Co. keep a firm eye on the bottom line, and financial reality makes it impossible to pay for five all-pro linemen without sacrificing what you'd need to pay for quality players in other parts of the team. And that pushes one key question to the front and center:

How good are these linemen, and would it be financially smart to draft a replacement in this year's draft on the theory that the current starter will be worth more than Pittsburgh could afford to pay when his contract comes up?

Marcus Gilbert. I won't spend much time here because he's under contract. Basically, Gilbert has played like an average tackle with a couple of technical flaws that make him vulnerable to the likes of Elvis Dumervil. Yes, I know that Dumervil is an all-pro who makes a lot of tackles look like chumps. That doesn't make it acceptable. Since the flaws that I can see are fixable (if you keep your hands low they'll become a lever for rushers to use against you), I'm willing to believe that Gilbert will keep improving in each of the years to come and mature from "okay" into "good."

Kelvin Beachum. To my eye Kelvin Beachum is a keeper. I'm BTSC-trained to notice subtle assets such as his decent initial kick-step and smooth movement skills. I've often noted that he also has a really good feel for where he is in relation to the force being applied by the rusher, and for the options that rusher has available. Beachum's size limits the amount of slack he has to make mistakes, but that's okay because he doesn't make very many. A guy like this will tend to get better too, because he'll make full use of any strength he can add or tricks he can pick up. At the risk of pulling numbers out of my ear, that means he's probably in the 40-60% bracket of the NFL pack for pass-protecting tackles and likely to end his career in the top 20%, if not better. On the other hand, I am told that Beachum's run-blocking is sub-par and will never be more than average because he's a smooth mover but not a very explosive one - which also means that he has about as much chance for success as a Guard as Steve McLendon would have for success as a 5-technique Defensive End. He might be able to pull the feat off in a pinch but it's not where he belongs.

Maurkice Pouncey. Pro Bowl... again. Haters will hate but the only big thing Pouncey could do for this line that he hasn't already done is off the field. Maurkice? You need to talk to Brother Mike and remember how much you guys liked playing together. If you thought of your salaries as a pool and agreed to split the available money evenly... [Ahem].

David DeCastro. Pro Bowl... on the way. With many more to follow. Maybe the team could restructure his rookie deal now to extend him for the next eight years or so. But he probably wouldn't take that deal since his value on the 2016 open market could be a wonder to behold.

Ramon Foster. All he's done is beat every challenger down to the point where no one really tries anymore. I understand - one major reason why the Steelers haven't implemented the outside zone is that Foster is much better in a phone booth than he is moving in space. When asked to play in a 2x2 yard box, Ramon Foster is a somewhere in that #10 to #20 band of guards. Asked to play on the move, he slips down the chart. Fair enough. The play at Left Guard could be improved, but only by someone who's really, really good.

Mike Adams. The questions continue. Haunting "what-ifs" balanced by sobering "what was thats?"

Contract Outlook and Questions:

The Steelers will face a tidal wave of contract choices for the offensive line after the 2015 season, with at least three of the top six players becoming free agents. How many can the team afford with so much money already tied up with Pouncey and Gilbert? Is there a chance the team could sign DeCastro and/or Beachum to a long-term deal during this offseason? I sincerely hope the front office will try to do just that for both players, but I'd guess that only Beachum would agree. It's a simple matter of balancing how big a bird you've already got against how many you glimpse in the bush.

DeCastro was a first round pick who is clearly on the rise. He already earns enough to be "rich" by most people's standards, and has the potential to be "jackpot rich" if he simply stays the course. Make the Steelers exercise his 5th year option, see if the expected TV-money hike to the salary cap really happens, and then cash in fully in 2016.

Beachum on the other hand... Kelvin Beachum has been earning a pittance compared to a 1st-rounder's deal. If he inked a 5 year deal tomorrow his signing bonus alone would probably be more than 10x the salary he'd otherwise receive next year. $600K is a lot of money, but it's not security for the rest of your life, especially when a freak injury could forever destroy your ability to earn much more. At the same time, Beachum's prospects on the free agency market are a lot less bright than his linemate's. Teams pay jackpot money only for actual stars, guys who can claim to be in the top 5 of the league at their position. They don't do the same for guys like Beachum, who may someday mature into a pro bowl berth but would consider it a highlight of their career.

Adams is on what amounts to a one-year "prove-it" deal. He hasn't shown enough to merit a long-term offer before his contract expires, and as a 2nd-round pick he already earns enough that a bargain deal from the team's point of view would not be worth it from his.

If Foster is willing to keep playing for $2 Million per year, signing him is a no brainer. He'd be worth almost that much as a superb backup. At the same time, I'm not sure that a truly average guard could demand a whole lot more than that on the open market.

What I Foresee; Long Term Signings and Draft Desires:

At tackle, I would sign Beachum to a long-term extension on terms comparable to what Gilbert got paid. They have performed at similar levels, and project to have similar futures. Gilbert's ceiling is a little higher because of his physical gifts, but Beachum can play on the blind side, has been a bit healthier, and has a more reliable floor. Adams can play out his rookie deal as the primary backup and then we'll see. If he can get starter's money on another team, so be it. If not, the front office will be in the ideal position to determine how much he's actually worth as a backup.

Then I would recommend drafting a raw but highly athletic talent somewhere in the 6-UDFA area as a hedge against the worst-case scenario in which an already-paid Gilbert or Beachum goes down and Adams comes in to play like a star (or a dud) who won't be on the team come 2016. It depends in part on what the team thinks of Van Dyk's and Villanueva's prospects.

At guard, I would sign Foster for another long extension but at a much more moderate amount comparable to what he's already getting paid. DeCastro... yikes. We've got him for two years but how in the world can you justify paying star-level money to two members of the offensive line (he and Pouncey) while also paying full-scale money to two others (Gilbert and Beachum)? Even worse, there are no real backups behind Foster and DeCastro.

A depth pick at guard is even more important than one at tackle. In the ideal world the team would find a player with the potential to excel at either position. Maybe one of the Oklahoma prospects (Tyrus Thompson or Daryl Williams)? In the alternative, I would look for a Beachum clone - a very athletic college tackle who is projected as an NFL guard because of size and/or level-of-competition concerns. Maybe someone like Ali Marpet from my old alma mater, tiny Hobart College on the sunny shores of Lake Geneva.

A higher pick at either position looks a lot less likely. First, there are no sure-thing superstars in this year's draft. Even the most highly ranked prospects like Lael Collins or Brandon Scherff have their fair share of question marks and could end up as a downgrade from Beachum and Foster. Or to continue the overused metaphor, Pittsburgh already has enough birds in hand to make the bushes look a bit thorny. Second, there are so many more-needy positions that an offensive lineman will almost certainly lose the tiebreakers unless he's a vastly superior prospect to everyone else on the Board. There's a young man named Cameron Erving who could tempt the team if he somehow falls to 2:24 because of his versatility - he can play all five positions across the line, with Center and Guard being his best options - but even that might be a reach compared to the wealth of pass rushing and secondary talent that's likely to be available at what are arguably the biggest positions of need.

BTSC loves its dancing bears. We go to bed at night dreaming of shiny Polar Bears. What we've got are a couple of growing grizzlies. That will have to do - and it should.