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3 most important Steelers storylines for the remainder of the offseason

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Rookies, expiring contracts, and Ladarius Green’s health are among the most important storylines faced by the Steelers this offseason

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NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this out of the way: truly groundbreaking bits of information from now until training camp will be few and far between. In fact, fewer mentions in the national news cycle would be a welcome change of pace for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have dominated the offseason storylines during the past two seasons due to the Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant suspensions.

With that said, there are numerous internal storylines worth monitoring, including:

  • James Harrison’s and Antonio Brown’s individual workouts. Here, for example, is a video of Brown holding a side plank for 60 seconds while simultaneously catching footballs with one hand. Don't try this at home. Presumably, Harrison is a week or two away from uploading a video of himself bench pressing refrigerators or kickboxing a gorilla.
  • The early development of the rookies during minicamp.
  • Contracts! Le’Veon Bell is set to play 2017 under the franchise tag, though the team still has some time to hash out a long-term extension. Stephon Tuitt and Alejandro Villanueva are both in line for new deals, as well.
  • What becomes of some of Pittsburgh’s veterans, including William Gay, Darrius Heyward-Bey and, of course, Greg Warren? The Steelers are built to win right now, but they're obviously still trying to get younger to compete in the years ahead. This is among Pittsburgh’s most prominent hallmarks: avoid a major rebuild by continuously reloading.
  • Getting Pittsburgh to Mexico. The Steelers want to play in Mexico City and Mexico City wants the Steelers. Expanding their reach beyond stateside very nearly happened for 2017, so look for some progress to be made on a 2018 matchup at Estadio Azteca between Pittsburgh and a soon-to-be named foe (Dallas, perhaps?).
  • Jersey sales! T.J. Watt was always going to be a fan favorite, while James Conner’s jersey may very well be among the league’s best sellers.
  • Ladarius Green’s health. The Steelers didn’t draft a tight end, so it stands to reason that they are at least somewhat comfortable with Green’s status.

Let’s discuss a few of these in further detail:

Rookies!

Judging rookies based on their minicamp performances is a pretty meaningless endeavor. Well, that isn’t entirely accurate. I suppose if, say, Cameron Sutton, was outperformed by a player who is merely a fill-in (there are, like, 40 dudes participating in minicamp), that would be a cause for concern. As a third-round pick, Sutton is ostensibly in a position to secure a large role in Pittsburgh’s secondary (if not a starting role, probably as the No. 3 corner), so you would like to see him at least shine against lesser competition.

Sutton is just one of several rookies who are expected—at least for now, until we can get a better look at them during training camp—to be major contributors to the team’s success this season. Sutton, Watt, Conner and receiver Juju Smith-Schuster are all high draft picks who play positions of need for the Steelers, so it wouldn’t be surprising for this class to have a similar impact to the 2016 class, which yielded three starters.

Contracts!

For the first time in a long time, the Steelers have some cap flexibility. This is terrific news, as three of Pittsburgh’s most indispensable players are in line for extensions. Le’Veon Bell’s contract ranks first in terms of immediate importance for the Steelers, as they have only until July 15 to negotiate a multi-year extension with Bell.

As has been discussed on numerous occasions, Bell’s impending free-agency represents a unique circumstance as he is a) one of the NFL’s most dynamic players and b) has been suspended twice for off-field mishaps and suffered three major knee injuries. While the latter issues could negatively impact Bell’s overall earning potential, it's truly inexplicable that Pittsburgh would allow him to walk away in free-agency without putting up a good fight. Bell has been, and will continue to be, worth every penny of what will presumably be a record-setting contract. With time ticking on an extension, this is a story worth monitoring.

Aside from the looming July 15 deadline, the Steelers would be wise to sign Bell as soon as possible to ensure the Falcons RB Devonta Freeman’s forthcoming extension doesn’t give Bell extra leverage. If Freeman signs a deal that pays him $12 million annually, for example, Bell will command at least that, if not significantly more.

In addition to Bell, Stephon Tuitt and Alejandro Villanueva have both earned lucrative extensions. Unfortunately, both deals remain incredibly difficult to predict.

The current landscape for offensive linemen has never been more complicated. To me, it bears a striking resemblance to the NBA. Realistically, the NFL only has three or four elite offensive lines (Dallas = Warriors, Raiders = Cavs, Steelers = Spurs). This has caused other teams to either attempt to copy the Cowboys’ model or overpay for subpar talent. Russell Okung, for example, parlayed a “meh” 2016 campaign into a $50 million contract with the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason. Matt Kalil, who was even worse than Okung last season, also received a $50 million contract from the Carolina Panthers.

Villanueva is not a top-tier left tackle, but has remained steadfast in his progression and is an important piece of one of the NFL’s best units. He is going to demand a larger contract than your think. Sportrac places Villanueva’s market value somewhere in the $7 million/year range, which seems accurate. Considering that teams have recently begun to overpay left tackles, however, there is no telling what Villanueva could command on the open market. If someone is willing to pay him $10 million/year, he would be crazy not to pursue it. The Steelers could likely save themselves some money but working out an extension before the regular season.

Tuitt’s contract is similarly tricky. Subpar sack totals tend to cloud the value of 3-4 ends, but Tuitt is clearly among the most valuable members of Pittsburgh’s defense. He turns 24 later this month, so depending on the length of his extension he could still find himself in line for another massive extension somewhere down the line. For now, it looks like Tuitt can expect a deal that averages somewhere between $7-10 million/year.

According to Sportac, the Steelers should have $20-ish million in cap room next season. With several veteran expiring contracts this season and next, plus an ever-growing salary cap, Pittsburgh should be able to keep much of their core intact, should they choose to do so.

Green!

Green participated in offseason workouts, which is an encouraging sign given the traumatic end to his 2016 campaign.

The Steelers have to feel good about Green’s health, considering that they didn't draft or sign a tight end this offseason.

Green showed glimpses of his field-stretching athleticism during the 2016 season, including the play on which he suffered his season-ending concussion against Cincinnati. He would be a welcome addition to Pittsburgh’s offense, which is expected to be among the best units in the NFL. Indeed, Green’s impact would extend beyond the realm of catching passes and blocking, as it would enable Jesse James to return to a slightly more ancillary role, for which he may be better suited.