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Position by position: OL

Ray Fittipaldo 6 years ago

There might not be another position group that overachieved more than the Steelers’ offensive line this past season. They lost their All-Pro center for the season in August and they lost their left tackle in Week 6. Even without Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum the Steelers offense hummed along and once again was among the best in the NFL in points and yards.

That would not have been possible without an efficient offensive line that got some nice contributions a career  backup and a first-year player who did not have any previous NFL experience.

The Steelers did have David DeCastro earn All-Pro honors and Marcus Gilbert played very well at right tackle, but line coach Mike Munchak should be praised for getting the most out of center Cody Wallace and reserve tackle Alejandro Villanueva.

Wallace, a career backup, started all 16 games and kept things steady along the interior of the line. The same can be said for Villanueva, a first-year player who spent last season on the practice squad. He wasn’t even a lock to make the 53-man roster in July. A back injury to Mike Adams allowed him to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, and he was solid in his 12 games as a starter.

Villanueva is by no means a finished product, and Beachum, if he is re-signed, very well could unseat him as the starter next season, but he did well enough for the Steelers to get back into the playoffs.

While this unit overachieved it’s also one that faces uncertainty this offseason. Beachum and left guard Ramon Foster are unrestricted free agents. Beachum could return if another team doesn’t want to invest big money in an undersized tackle coming off major knee surgery. Ultimately, that could work to the Steelers’ advantage.

Foster is another story altogether. He just completed a three-year contract that paid him $1.85 million in the final season of the deal. He is 30 and will be looking to earn a nice buck in what likely will be his final NFL contract.

There are many reasons Foster will not return. The Steelers already have big money tied up in Pouncey and Gilbert and DeCastro, who is likely to sign a long-term extension this offseason. It’s simple math, really. You can’t pay everyone on the line.

DeCastro is proof you can get an impact starter late in the first round. The Steelers could go that route again this spring if there is a guard who is the best player available on their draft board. You can get a starter in the second or third round, too.

And if not, the Steelers have younger players in Chris Hubbard and B.J. Finney who might be able to be a stop-gap starter. The Steelers probably felt the same way about Foster when he entered the lineup in 2010. He’s been a starter ever since. He took advantage of his opportunity.

Hubbard or Finney could get the opportunity depending on how the draft plays out. Finney, a rookie from Kansas State who spent the season on the practice squad, is a technically sound player with some upside. He more than held his own in one-on-one matchups with the Steelers’ top defensive linemen throughout training camp.

However the offseason plays out, the Steelers have three Pro Bowl-caliber players on the line in Pouncey, DeCastro and Gilbert. It’s a solid nucleus to build around, but the front office will be searching for players in the draft to compete as either starters or reserves.

That’s not always an appetizing scenario for a team that has the Super Bowl in mind, but the one thing the Steelers have going for them is Munchak. He has demonstrated an ability to get the most out of the players available to him, and he might be forced to do that again next season.