Player: Chris Hubbard
Position: Offensive Lineman
Experience: 3 Years (1 Practice Squad, 2 Accrued)
Free Agent Status: Exclusive Rights
2015 Salary Cap Hit: $510,000
2015 Season Breakdown: Though technically a two-year player, having earned accrued seasons in each of the past two years, many will remember that offensive lineman Chris Hubbard has, in fact, been in the league for three seasons, each with the Steelers, having spent all of the 2013 season on the team’s practice squad.
In other words, while he already has three years’ worth of practice experience with the team, he will enter the 2016 season regarded as a third-year player, which is a key distinction that separates him from one hierarchy of free agency to the next. As a player with two years of accrued experience or fewer, he is regarded as an exclusive rights free agent. Players with three accrued seasons are restricted free agents.
If I had my way back during the preseason, of course, Hubbard would never have made the roster in 2015, such was my low opinion of his performance during this past year’s slate of exhibition games. But injuries certainly helped him stick around, including among starters and among eventual practice squad players, for which he himself was still eligible.
The Steelers have liked Hubbard since the beginning, and during training camp last year, they began to try to flex him out more, giving him plenty of reps at center, where he struggled, resulting in several bobbled snaps during practice and in games.
It seemed to be a wholesale regression of his play, sealing his fate. But he made the roster, and he even saw the field relatively frequently given his stature, often taking the field as a tackle-eligible tight end in select short-yardage or goal line circumstances.
And largely, he served the team fairly well in that capacity, logging a total of 33 offensive snaps during the regular season. Of those 33 snaps, 26 came as a tight end, with the majority of those snaps coming from run-heavy personnel, such as 22 or 13.
But after Kelvin Beachum’s injury, Hubbard inherited the role of super-sub, the lineman who would be asked to step in at any time for any injury along the line. Fortunately, that hardly played a role down the stretch, but he did log a four-snap possession at left tackle in the second game against the Bengals.
Free Agency Outlook: As much maligned a player as any during the preseason, Hubbard proved himself more capable in the games that counted in the games that didn’t, even in spite of the fact that he also appeared to struggle during practice according to our own eye witnesses.
For whatever reason, he did well enough when called upon during the regular season, and even logged a snap as a tackle-eligible during the Divisional round. The Steelers have already re-signed him to a contract for the 2016 season as an exclusive rights free agent, and with the left side of the offensive line in a bit of a limbo right now, he could figure to continue to carve out a niche for himself in Pittsburgh.