For much of the offseason, it was assumed that, at some point before the start of the regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers would award a couple of young players with lucrative contract extensions, as they did last summer with key pieces of their offensive line and one particularly maligned cornerback.
More recently, we’ve heard from the local beat writers that that may not be the case after all, and that perhaps only defensive end Cameron Heyward, who is currently playing under his rookie contract’s team fifth-year option with a high-dollar value, will see a contract extension amongst those who are due for one.
Should that be the case, it will certainly create an interesting spring next year with several key starters set to become free agents, including, most notably, left tackle Kelvin Beachum. Should they fail to offer him a contract this offseason, things could get interesting.
Entering his fourth season, the final year of his rookie deal after being selected in the compensatory portion of the seventh round of the 2012 NFL Draft, Beachum played every snap at left tackle in 2014 and is heading into his second full season as a full-time starter.
Since taking over the position five games into the 2013 season, the young man has steadily improved, particularly with respect to his work in pass protection. While he gave up some numbers in terms of sacks (three against the Buccaneers), the reality is that he only gave up a handful of pressures outside of that, which is an excellent ratio.
Other venues are beginning to take notice, and Beachum figures to hit a payday either this offseason or next offseason, and if it comes next year, it could very well come from a place other than Pittsburgh. Should that happen, the Steelers may have an issue on their hands.
If they elect to pay Beachum, then that means that they are willing to commit high-dollar value to at least 60 percent of their offensive line for the long term, with David DeCastro another likely long-term investment.
Such substantial allocation of funds is tricky to pull off for one area of the team, but it may be worth it to preserve the twilight years of Ben Roethlisberger’s career if there is no other viable alternative.
And the fact is that there are no known viable alternatives at the moment. Mike Adams, who will also be a free agent next season, bombed out of the left tackle spot, and he showed little to no improvement in his four starts at right tackle last season.
Many have gotten themselves excited over Alejandro Villanueva, including myself, but you don’t make financial decisions banking on him becoming your left tackle before he even puts pads on. That would quite frankly be utterly ridiculous.
It comes down to this: first, the Steelers must decide how many players along the offensive line they are willing to commit paying to. Could paying Beachum prevent the Steelers from paying DeCastro long-term? If so, which player/position combination do you value more?
Once the decision is made to be open to paying Beachum, then the question is, is it worth risking a breakout performance to wait to pay him next offseason, exposing yourself to the possibility of him pricing himself out of your range?
We all know Beachum is regarded as “undersized” for the position. He is the shortest and lightest left tackle in the league. But he doesn’t play that way. And he has continued to improve on a consistent basis. I have a hard time seeing the Steelers excluding him from their plans the way they did with Jason Worilds, but they may have to wait a year and expose themselves to a potential bidding war.