PITTSBURGH -- For the Steelers’ offense to truly take off, for the Todd Haley experiment to live in Pittsburgh football folklore, the offensive line needs to stay together.
Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert were healthy last year, and the results were impressive. Ben Roethlisberger produced a career-best 4,952 passing yards and a decade-low 33 sacks. Le’Veon Bell was second in the NFL in rushing. After knee injuries to Pouncey and DeCastro forced too much lineup shuffling in 2012 and 2013, continuity proved invaluable for the Steelers’ offense.
But the Steelers’ have loftier goals, which will require money. Pouncey said he's eyeing a top 10 rushing offense after finishing 16th last year. Gilbert wants more than that.
“With these years playing with each other, we should be the best offensive line in the NFL,” said Gilbert, who cites the accountability of players "keeping it 100" with one another as big reasons why.
Now back to the money part, which is unavoidable for this group. As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Mark Kaboly points out, the Steelers just gave Pouncey and Gilbert a combined $74 million in potential down-the-road earnings and designated an $8 million option for DeCastro. A long-term deal for DeCastro, which is possible, would put him around $7 million a year based on the average of the top 10 highest-salaried guards.
That leaves Beachum, considered an ascending tackle because of his mobility, and Foster, who’s started for much of his six-year career, as free agents.
If the Steelers don’t finalize deals for those two before the season, they have two options -- pay them after the season or replace them in the 2016 draft. There’s little in between, as the Steelers typically don’t negotiate in season.
And don’t forget about Mike Adams, who hasn't emerged as a star but is a reliable backup.
The Steelers could draft a lineman regardless because depth is paramount at the position, but if the negotiations get tense with Beachum or Foster, they could regret not using one of their eight 2015 selections on the line. That's a year of missed development, explaining why the Steelers signed five undrafted free agent linemen.
Beachum is a former seventh-rounder who made Pro Football Focus’ Top 100 this offseason, so the Steelers have incentive to keep him. Signing him would validate the scouting department that identified him as a worthy draft pick. They stumbled into a reliable option at a crucial position. At 6-foot-3, Beachum is undersized for the position, but he overcomes that with his technique and footwork. The Steelers could sign him now and get ahead of his maximum value if he performs well for another year. They face a similar decision with defensive end Cam Heyward.
A Beachum signing could signal the end for Adams, whom the Steelers still like. A deal for Foster would be reasonable -- he’s a solid option but not a bank-breaker.
The safe bet is for the Steelers to keep two out of three, but not all three, then drafting a player in the first three rounds to play the Mike Adams role. The positional outlook is good for at least another year, probably longer.
"It’s becoming a strength of our team," Gilbert said. "We’re all holding each other accountable. Letting each other know how important this is."