Remember the Steelers O-line in their last two Super Bowl wins? Many said it was some of the worst O-lines to ever win a Super Bowl. While I wouldn't go that far, I would agree that those units were certainly not the strength of the team. However, all of that has changed in the last few years. The Steelers offensive line has transformed into a strength of the team.
How did that happen? Will it remain so going forward? Lets take a look at the recent history of the offensive line and understand why we may be looking at an entirely different cast of characters on the left side of the Steelers O-line next year.
To me, our current O-line re-build started with the drafting of Maurkice Pouncey. Yes, Ramon Foster was here before him, joining as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, but spending a number one pick on a center was a stake in the ground that the Steelers were serious about building the O-line and protecting Ben Roethlisberger as he entered the 2nd half of his career.
If you remember at the time the line had names like Willie Colon (who was not terrible when healthy), Chris Kemoeatu (lots of silly penalties), Justin Hartwig (who remembers the holding penalty in the Super Bowl against the Cardinals), big Max Starks (we didn't love him but couldn't find anyone better) and a hole that we never filled when Alan Faneca left.
Shortly after Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert a Gator teammate of Pouncey, was drafted in the 2nd road and though initially penciled in at left tackle, has actually become a solid right tackle for the Steelers. After Gilbert, the next year we ran to the podium and snatched David DeCastro with another first round pick. After a slow start, he is a pro bowl caliber right guard and it seems the Steelers finally found a successor to Faneca. Ramon Foster, the current old man of the line moved into the left guard position and has been pretty solid there ever since.
The pivotal left tackle slot was the weak link though. Using a 2nd round pick on Mike Adams out of Ohio State was supposed to be the answer, but between injuries and underperforming, Adams has never lived up to his draft status. The Steelers lucked out though when an undersized 7th round pick, who was slotted as a versatile fill in, emerged.
Kelvin Beachum was a gift from the football gods. While being the smallest starting left tackle in the league, his superior technique and tenacity made up for any physical shortcomings. Beachum stepped into the starting role and they literally had to cart him off the field to take it from him.
The Steelers run of good luck wasn't done there. Behind Beachum was a project the Steelers had signed the year before when the Eagles cut him. Big Alejandro Villlanueva, former TE on the Army team, converted to D lineman and now O-line was the backup who stepped up. While he didn't play like an All-Pro, for a guy new to the position his performance was more than admirable. What the future holds for him is open to debate, but at the very least having him as a backup at left tackle should provide some comfort.
To me though, the crowning piece of the resurgence of the Steelers line was hiring hall of fame player and coach Mike Munchak to coach the offensive line. Munchak stopped the merry go round that was the Steelers o-line coach position. He also installed the zone blocking scheme the team had been trying to run for a few years. More than all that though, he brought the experience of a hall of fame player at the position to our team. Even the back ups like Cody Wallace thrived under Munchak's tutelage.
So heading into 2016 the picture for the O-line looks bright, right? Wrong. Ramon Foster is a free agent. This figures to be his last NFL contract and he has to worry about his family. You can't blame him if he goes to the highest bidder. With the performance of the line and Fosters role in it, as well as his durability, he may be out of reach for the cap limited Steelers.
This leaves a big hole as we really don't have another guard besides swing tackle/guard Chris Hubbard or Wallace perhaps. This is why drafting a guard fairly high this year is a distinct possibility.
Besides Foster, Beachum is also a free agent. With a significant knee injury to rehab, I am not sure what the market will be for him. But starting left tackles are not cheap. Again, the Steelers cap situation could come back to bite them here.
Has Villanueva showed enough to let Beachum walk? I am not sure, it depends on what Munchak can to do accelerate his development. It is a gamble and the stakes are Ben Roethlisberger's blind side. Not something I am comfortable gambling on.
What about Mike Adams? Can he come back after taking the year off with back surgery and perhaps reach his potential? I wouldn't bet on that one either.
I don't know how this one turns out, but odds are that the left side of the Steelers offensive line is going to look very different from the one that opened up the 2015 season. The real question though is will they be as good or better? The Steelers certainly can't afford for them to be any worse.