The Pittsburgh Steelers are potentially entering a partial transitional phase when it comes to their offensive line, which is actually coming off arguably its best season in close to a decade or so, in spite of the fact that they had major injuries to overcome.
Even though All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey never played a snap for the team, and emerging left tackle Kelvin Beachum suffered an ACL injury in the sixth game of the season, the line collectively as a group was able to persevere through that adversity, helping to mitigate the issues stemming from their newfound weaknesses that were previously strengths, to offer a strong running game, as well as quality pass protection.
Pretty much no matter what happens, of course, the offensive line that the Steelers finished the season with will not be the one that they start the 2016 season with, regardless of the fact that they have two starting linemen—Beachum and left guard Ramon Foster—slated to hit free agency, when Pouncey returns to take over for Cody Wallace.
That is one wrench in the pre-established chemistry to take into consideration when making personnel decisions on the pending free agents. It seems clear to me that the Steelers need to re-sign at least one of their two free agents, and that the more appealing choice is Foster.
For starters, re-signing Foster and letting Beachum walk will keep together four of the five linemen, with the exception of Wallace, who took the bulk of the snaps in 2015. Alejandro Villanueva started 12 games including the playoffs, and while he may at least at this point in his career still be a downgrade talent-wise from Beachum, the reality is that any likely replacement that the Steelers cobble together for Foster will probably be an even more significant downgrade.
Whether, and how much, Beachum is able to cash in on the open market after some early struggles to his 2015 season and coming off of an October ACL tear remains to be seen, but I would be surprised—quite surprised—if the 26-year-old at the premiere position on an upward trajectory would command less than the 30-year old guard who doesn’t really pull block often.
Foster figures to be the more affordable option, and his retention will also be a boon for the development of Villanueva at left tackle, as the veteran was a great aid to the former Army Ranger in adjusting to life in the starting lineup, which is a fact that perhaps gets overlooked.
It is for that reason, however, that I believe the Steelers absolutely cannot afford to somehow lose both linemen. While some may be enamored by Villanueva and the potential his frame offers that he likely will never fully reach, the fact is that losing Foster next to him as the quarterback of the offensive line would be a regression.
So if you lose Foster, then you would be better served trying to keep Beachum. The reality may be, however, that neither are long-term answers. With Foster already being 30, of course, and seemingly always a threat to be replaced, and Beachum’s potential aversion to signing anything but a short-term contract without big money attached to it, neither may have much of an extended future left in Pittsburgh, especially considering the money already invested and to be invested in the offensive line.