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After Le’Veon Bell, which contract extension is most critical for the Steelers?

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The Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell is going to command a lot of money. But it’s not imperative to sign him to a contract immediately, especially if that would prevent the team from locking in other valuable players. Of those other players, which is the most critical to the team’s long-term success?

Divisional Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

As the collective anxiety over running back Le’Veon Bell’s contract increases within Steeler Nation with each passing day, it’s important to remember there are other long-term contracts that need to be considered by the Steelers’ front office.

The Steelers are in a no-lose situation with Bell. About five weeks into the 2016, he will exceeded the average shelf life of an NFL player, which is about 3.3 years. For players who make an opening-day roster, that number is about six years, meaning Bell has already reached the two-thirds mark of an average career, and is about to go over the point of peak productivity for a typical running back. Combined with his past off-field issues and the fact the Steelers an simply use the franchise tag again in 2018, it’s clear to see the leverage is not with the player at this time. Whether or not a contract is agreed upon, the Steelers will likely have Bell’s services for two more seasons. There is, at the very least, some clarity in his case.

Not so clear are the futures of some other, up-and-coming stars — specifically, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, cornerback Ross Cockrell, kicker Chris Boswell and punter Jordan Berry. All are starters, all have played well and all are critical cogs in the Steelers as they exist today. Taking Bell out of the equation, which is the most critical contract situation for the Steelers to take care of before free agency begins in 2018?

Chris Boswell. It’s really a no-brainer. A lot of people are going to say Tuitt, or even Villanueva. True, both are important, and both have exceeded the value of their contracts. Tuitt was a nearly unanimous top-five projection headed into the 2014 draft, but ended up sliding due to injury concerns. The Steelers got first-round production from a second-round pick. By the end of the 2017 season, Tuitt may end up being the best player on the defensive line.

Villanueva is an absolute steal, as the tight-end-turned-defensive-end was plucked from the scrap heap and converted into a left tackle, where he has excelled. His rate of improvement has bordered on absurd and he’s probably the cheapest third-year starter on any offensive line in the league.

But Boswell is the most important, for one simple reason: he scores points. Lots of them.

Yes, kickers are always among the highest scorers in the NFL. Even mediocre kickers score a lot of points. But Boswell is not a mediocre kicker.

Yes, Boswell’s 99 points in 2016 was about the middle of the road. But that was more due to the aggressiveness of the offense and the coaching staff. The Steelers attempted more two-point conversions than any other team in 2016, at nine. Additionally, the Steelers were more likely than most other teams to keep pushing for a touchdown. In 2016, they tied for the fourth-most fourth-down attempts in their opponents’ side of the field. Head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley are simply aggressive play-callers beyond midfield, which takes away from Boswell’s attempts.

But there is no denying how valuable he has been. In two seasons, he has missed a single extra point and just one of 29 field-goal attempts from inside 40 yards. He is 20 of 24 from 40 to 50 yards, and 2 of 4 from beyond 50. That’s all while playing half his games at the hardest stadium in the league for kickers. Finding someone who can kick accurately in Heinz Field is a feat in and of itself.

In just two seasons, Boswell is already 21st on the team’s all-time scoring list, with 212 points. Gary Anderson, the team’s all-time leader, scored 1,343 points in 13 seasons. Boswell is on pace to score 1,378 points in that same span. By comparison, All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown has scored 336 points in seven seasons.

Kickers are simply valuable players. Great kickers come at a rate of about one every five years or so. The Steelers have been blessed with great kickers for a while, from Jeff Reed to Shaun Suisham to, now, Boswell. Suisham’s career was shortened by injury; Reed’s was shorted by stupidity. Neither of them were ignored by the team while both capable of doing the job and not being an idiot. This is a team that understands value, and they will get that deal done.

Villanueva’s value shouldn’t be ignored, but he is still a restricted free agent in 2017, giving them the right of first refusal and compensation if they choose not to match another team’s offer. Besides that, the team has to see in 2017 what they have in Jerald Hawkins. Reports have been good, but there is a lot of unknown there. That question needs to be answered before any long-term contract is offered to to Villanueva.

There is no such known alternative to Boswell. After dealing with the first few weeks following Suisham’s career-ending injury, it was obvious how important a top-notch kicker is to a team’s overall success.

Boswell is top-notch. The Steelers know that. They will pay him, and they will do it soon.