By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to The Point of Pittsburgh
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images
Whenever a sports fan is asked to name a player on the Steelers roster, typically their response is something along the lines of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, or Le’Veon Bell, and rightfully so considering that they are the “Big Three” in Pittsburgh. Big Ben is currently the highest paid player on the team and a player like Antonio Brown certainly deserves to be right there next to him (obviously not $20M/year, but you get my point).
If you have read anything online about the Steelers recently, you know that Bell is entering his contract season and is set to hit the free agent market during the 2017 offseason. There is no denying Bell’s overwhelming talent and that he brings so much to an already dangerous Steelers offense. But how successful is Bell on his own? Let me draw a little comparison for you. DeMarco Murray had the breakout season of a lifetime in 2014, rushing for 1,845 yards, 13 touchdowns, and adding 57 receptions, all while averaging an astounding 4.7 yards/rush. I, like many other observers to the Cowboys power run attack, will tell you one of the key factors to Murray’s success was their out-of-this-world offensive line. Now don’t get me wrong: Murray is an amazing running back and likely will have another solid season with the Titans this year after spending last season with the struggling Eagles. But it is unlikely that Murray will ever taste the same level of success he had while running behind Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Fredrick, Zack Martin, and Doug Free. That’s the sad truth. And the same can be said about Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers at this point were Bell to leave the Steelers for another team with a lesser offensive line and a weak supporting cast.
After having one of the worst offensive lines throughout the later part of the 2000s, the Steelers began their offensive line movement by selecting center Maurkice Pouncey in the 1st round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Over the next few seasons, the team made a large amount of selections to help bolster their offensive line:
- 2010 1st Round: C Maurkice Pouncey
- 2010 5th Round: T Chris Scott
- 2011 2nd Round: T Marcus Gilbert
- 2011 6th Round: G Keith Williams
- 2012 1st Round: G David DeCastro
- 2012 2nd Round: T Mike Adams
- 2012 7th Round: T Kelvin Beachum
Now while half of these players are no longer on the Steelers roster, 3 of them currently help fortify the Steelers offensive line: Pouncey, DeCastro, and Gilbert. They were even able to find a gem in undrafted free agent guard Ramon Foster in 2009. With an offensive line of (from L to R) Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert, the Steelers offensive line is one of the most underrated units in the entire NFL.
Since 2010, Pouncey has been considered the Steelers best offensive lineman and the leader of the group. Unfortunately, with two season-ending injuries in three seasons, Pouncey has spent more time off the field than on it, leading to the emergence of All-Pro guard David DeCastro, who is arguably the Steelers best offensive lineman, even with Pouncey finally being healthy.
The effective play of DeCastro and the rest of the offensive line have been one of the driving factors in the emergence of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell as elite players in the NFL and why backup running back DeAngelo Williams continues to perform at a high level at an older age. After averaging 47 sacks per season from 2006-2009, Roethlisberger’s sack totals have also decreased 12 sacks less per season since the hiring of Todd Haley and the offensive line resurgence, with 3 games last season where Roethlisberger was not sacked at all. Again, there is no denying that Brown, Bell, and Roethlisberger are out of this world talents, but listen to me when I tell you that an offense is only as good as the guys up front.
Maybe that’s the former offensive lineman in me talking, creating a bias. Or maybe I am right.
I am willing to say that I am right on this one.
Now back to my original point. DeCastro is going to be playing on his 5th-year option contract this season, which will net him just over $8M this season. To put it into perspective, the highest paid guard next season will be the Raiders Kelechi Osemele, who signed a 5 year, $58.5M deal this offseason (DeCastro will be the 3rd-highest paid guard this season). Osemele’s deal will cause a $13 million cap hit this year, which isn’t terrible for the top paid guard in the league. The biggest issue? Osemele isn’t the best guard in the NFL. That distinction belongs to the Ravens’ Marshal Yanda, a 2015 1st-Team All-Pro who currently is playing on a 4 year, $31.9M deal that will have a cap hit of over $10M per season in 2018 and 2019. But who was the other 1st-Team All-Pro guard in the NFL last season?
Not Kelechi Osemele.
When healthy, Maurkice Pouncey is one of the top 3 centers in the NFL. But the truth is that he is no longer the Steelers best offensive lineman. That distinction belongs to none other than DeCastro, who is the Steelers best offensive lineman (guard or otherwise) since Alan Faneca, who just happens to be a future Hall of Famer. Many fans will overlook the importance of a solid offensive line because it isn’t a sexy position like a wide receiver, quarterback, or pass-rusher. But believe me when I say that football is a game that begins in the trenches and when you have a talented player like DeCastro, he needs to get paid. Many people believe that the Steelers need to re-sign Le’Veon Bell (which they do). But at what price? It is no secret that the going rate for NFL running backs has substantially depreciated over recent years, with only Adrian Peterson making astronomical amounts of money.
Adrian Peterson is also the greatest running back of this generation. There. I said it.
Bell’s health and off the field issues have marred an otherwise amazing and young career. When healthy, Bell is arguably the most dynamic back in the NFL who, regardless of where he plays in 2017, is sure to get a nice payday and become one of the highest paid in the league. But what is the cost? The Steelers have free agents coming up in the next few seasons like Antonio Brown (the best receiver in the NFL), Markus Wheaton (a solid #2 receiver), Stephon Tuitt (one of the rising star defensive lineman in the league), and Ryan Shazier (projected by many to be a candidate for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year), just to name a few. The Steelers honestly cannot afford to pay Bell realistically more than about $7-$8 million per season if they want to keep even half of these players long-term, all of whom have become the core nucleus of the Steelers youth movement. The Steelers have spent too much time and energy trying to rebuild their offensive line and defense to let Bell dictate their cap situation. With an injury history like Bell has had, you are better off investing your money into one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league.
Keep in mind that next year’s NFL Draft is absolutely LOADED with running back talent, much like the 2013 NFL Draft was when the Steelers made a controversial pick by taking a Michigan State running back in the 2nd round.
Don’t get me wrong. In a perfect world, the Steelers will be able to sign DeCastro and Bell to the long-term contracts that they want that will keep them in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future without sacrificing talent elsewhere on the roster. But most fans are overlooking the importance of re-signing arguably the greatest player in this years Steelers free agency group, and that player is David DeCastro.
After all, football begins in the trenches and the team was fortunate enough to have the Stanford guard fall to them in 2012. Talent like his is hard to come by.
No one knows this better than Big Ben and Le’Veon Bell.