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, nose tackle Steve McLendon, entering his third year as a starter and his last in which he will be under the age of 30.
A few offseasons ago, when the Steelers elected to move away from Casey Hampton, and veteran reserve Chris Hoke had already retired, they turned to McLendon, then a part-time rotational player who was a restricted free agent.
After tendering him the standard deal for a former undrafted free agent, McLendon briefly flirted with a visit to Green Bay, which got the front office calling again, resulting in the two parties working out a three-year deal.
2015 is the last year of that deal. What’s left to be determined is whether or not this is the last year for McLendon in Pittsburgh.
In reality, that is not a question that needs to be answered until 2016, and, in fact, there are many benefits to waiting on that decision as well, beyond simply saving the front office some in terms of real dollars committed this season.
For example, the Steelers might want to wait until they get a better look at second-year nose tackle Daniel McCullers, who has been receiving accolades from teammates, coaches, and the media alike.
If, hypothetically speaking, McCullers at some point during the season climbs the depth chart into the starting lineup, for example, then you will have overpaid for a backup rotational player going forward if you worked out a deal with McLendon this year.
The fact that the veteran has had multiple injury issues during his two years as a starter, causing him to miss six games total, plus parts of others, is also something that they would likely want to monitor. If he can get through a season healthy, then obviously the team would be more inclined to commit more to him financially beyond this season.
But how much further? He will already be 30 during the 2016 season. McCullers will be 24. I can’t help but wonder if there’s an unspoken desire for the young man to claim the spot from the veteran sooner rather than later.
Not that McLendon has done anything to merit losing his job. When he has been on the field, even playing through injury, he has been an asset, and re-signing him will certainly not hurt the Steelers on the field. But when it comes down to finances and forecasting the future, it may indeed make the most sense to wait and see how the year plays out.