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 two starters along the offensive line as well as their most veteran defensive back, not to mention their starting nose tackle.
Certainly at least a couple of these players will not be given new contracts. It was never assumed that all of them would be extended prior to the start of the 2014 season. The fact of the matter is that, while the Steelers may have some cap space available to them, their actual dollar value spending is already essentially at a limit that they like to preserve.
Still, it’s widely presumed that a deal will get done with Heyward over the course of the next couple of months, and there is no good reason for it not to, given that it should actually lower his cap hit slightly for this season. The fact that the market for his position and talent level is beginning to take shape with recent deals getting done is also proper motivation to see it happen.
A player of Heyward’s character and leadership, especially on a unit as desperate for a star such as he can be, is also essential to keep around, at virtually any reasonable price tag, given what he has produced over the course of the past two seasons. He is the nucleus around which the rest of this transitional defense is being assembled.
That can’t be said for the other starters heading into their final years, where the Steelers are facing a more nuanced situation in which they must balance how much they want to keep a player, how much they can still grow, how much they are willing to commit to that player financially, and, of course, what other options they have to fill the void.
If any of these players are likely to get a deal, it would have to be left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who is most likely to be able to raise his stock. If the Steelers are hesitant to pay him market value due to his size, and he continues to improve this season, they could be forced to commit major dollars to him or risk losing to him next year.
The other candidates in addition to Beachum, which I will touch on in the coming days, are left guard Ramon Foster, nose tackle Steve McLendon, and cornerback William Gay. What the team may be risking by waiting on their deals, and what alternatives they may have in place, will be weighed against the value of getting something done now.