With the news that the summer’s No. 1 contract-extension priority for the Steelers, Cameron Heyward, was signed to a new deal late Thursday, now the attention can turn to the player who is the team’s No. 2 priority.
Assuming there is one.
It’s been speculated that the Steelers might – perhaps – be one-and-done this offseason when it comes to extending players who are entering the final year of their deals. Heyward, for any number of reasons (production, intangibles, talented-and-ascending), was the obvious “must-sign.” With that getting done comfortably, what or who is next?
First, a listing of the candidates – “candidates” defined as veteran players who are entering the final season of multi-year contracts in which they will be unrestricted free agents after the campaign ends. Of the Steelers 2016 UFA’s-to-be, backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, defensive lineman Cam Thomas, fullback/tight end Will Johnson, guard Ramon Foster, cornerback William Gay, nose tackle Steve McLendon and left tackle Kelvin Beachum qualify.
That group can quickly be whittled down when you concede backup quarterback doesn’t figure to be a high priority – and neither does fullback, considering it’s a position rarely used anymore (with apologies to Johnson’s improved work when lining up on the line of scrimmage).
Also, Cam Thomas just has to worry about making this season’s team before he can think about any kind of extension.
Then, consider that the Steelers have already let Gay walk once via free agency (he played the 2012 season in Arizona). Although it wouldn’t be surprising whatsoever if Gay is back in 2016 and beyond, just don’t expect it to be a priority over these next eight weeks before the regular season starts.
Finally, the Steelers could probably be content to take a longer look at Daniel McCullers this season before effectively blocking him by signing the player in front of him on the depth chart, McLendon, to an extension.
Who does that leave? Beachum. A fine player (Pro Football Focus rated him the NFL’s fifth-best tackle in 2014) and an even finer young man. But he probably isn’t the slam-dunk extension candidate Heyward was, however.
Beachum is a curious case. He’s been effective, and he’s well-liked. He’s been underpaid – his backup, Mike Adams, has made more than him over these past four seasons (Adams was drafted five rounds prior than Beachum in 2012’s second round). Considering Adams is also an unrestricted free agent-to-be and there is literally zero NFL games of experience behind them (not counting starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert, of course), extending Beachum is a no-brainer, no?
Maybe, but if so, it’ll not come cheaply. Veteran starting left tackles on the free agent market typically are richly rewarded. It’s a position viewed by some as the second-most important on the field.
To wit, per Spotrac.com:
–Twenty-three left tackles carry a cap hit of at least $4 million this season, 21 of at least $5 million, 18 of at least $6 million, 15 of at least $7 million and 10 of at least $8 million. You better believe Beachum – via his agent – will want to be paid at least in the top half of the league’s starters, which easily means $7 million (yes, I know cap hit isn’t the same as salary, but bear with me, this just as a general guide here).
–Of left tackles currently under contract who signed veteran deals of at least three seasons (which Beachum will, at minimum, command) and that kick(ed) in during this season of either of the past two seasons*, the average annual value is $7.5 million and the average guarantee is $17.45 million. (Again, my disclaimer: “guarantee” is subjective, but this is per Spotrac’s definition).
–No offensive lineman from the 2012 draft class has signed his “second” contract yet. (Tom Compton was cut before his rookie season began, spending it on the practice squad, so he is exempt). This means a market has not yet been established.
Keep in mind that for those first two bulleted points, the numbers are on the low end of what today’s starting left tackles will command on the market simply because most of those deals were signed in past offseasons, when the salary cap was lower and therefore less money was available. Inflation, in the NFL as in life, is a constant. (Just usually exponentially more in the NFL than in life).
But the overall point stands: A Beachum contract will cost no insignificant sum.
The problem is, where do the Steelers turn at left tackle if they don’t keep Beachum?
Adams – a player their own actions say they believe is inferior?
Alejandro Villanueva – a player who turns 27 soon and hasn’t appeared in an NFL game yet?
A free agent? Who’s to say a comparable player would come any cheaper than a known quantity in Beachum?
A draft pick? It’s never wise to depend on a rookie – let alone an unnamed, theoretical one who you wouldn’t even know his identity at the time you’d be letting Beachum walk.
At 6-3, 303, Beachum is undersized by NFL left-tackle standards. Maybe that gives the Steelers pause? Perhaps knowing that it’s likely that at least some teams will never considering signing Beachum because of his size will work to suppress his value on the open market, thereby giving the Steelers a reason to lowball? As a seventh-round pick, several teams have passed on Beachum once before.
Either way, tracking the Beachum/Steelers extension saga will be one of the main stories to follow during training camp.
*-Note: For Michael Oher, I used the contract he signed with Tennessee in 2014 instead of the one he signed with Carolina this past spring after getting but by the Titans