Have you ever been faced with one of those major decisions in life where you know things could turn out either way, and if they turn out bad, you could be paying the price for quite some time?
This is how the Steelers might be feeling at the moment, thanks to the recent news that Alex Mack, the Browns all-world center, inked a new contract for $42 million over five years.
Mack, an unrestricted free agent who was designated with the transition tag, actually received the offer from Jacksonville, but the Browns had a right to match it, and they chose to do so.
Why is this news in Pittsburgh? It’s because like Cleveland this offseason, the Steelers could have their own all-world free agent center to deal with next offseason in one Maurkice Pouncey, and it might be almost impossible to make the right decision.
As the Post Gazette story linked above points out quite succinctly, Pouncey, a three time Pro Bowl player, will almost surely command the same kind of contract as Mack, whether he signs before free agency or during it.
On the surface it seems like a no-brainer for Pittsburgh to sign Pouncey. If you have a Pro-Bowl caliber player who is only 24 years old (25 by the start of the 2014 season), you do whatever it takes to extend that player’s time with your organization.
Ah, but if you dig a little below the surface, you’ll discover that the decision might not be so easy.
For one thing, there’s the seemingly perpetual problem the Steelers have with salary cap compliance—a problem that resurfaces each and every February and March and is compounded by the team’s on-going willingness and eagerness to restructure players already under contract and push more and more money into the future.
Another thing that might not make the decision a no-brainer is the LaMarr Woodley six year, $61.5 million contract he and the Steelers agreed to just prior to the 2011 season.
At the time, despite the differing opinions by some fans and media members, Woodley was a player Pittsburgh had to get under contract.
Coming off three Super Bowl appearances and two World Championships in six years, it was paramount that the Steelers retain as much of their young, superstar talent that they could in-order to keep the playoff train going in the right direction.
Woodley was 26 years old, had just recorded 39 quarterback sacks in his first four seasons, and was quickly emerging as one of the most dangerous pass rushing linebackers in the NFL.
Unfortunately, midway through the 2011 season, Woodley suffered a major hamstring injury that sidelined him the rest of the year and seemed to be the gateway to a period where he would struggle with injuries and production the remainder of his time in Pittsburgh, before being released in March.
And that brings me to the third reason why signing Pouncey might not be a no-brainer: His history of being injury-prone.
Now, I realize it’s a bit unfair to call a player who has missed significant time with high-ankle sprains and a major knee injury that were the result of being rolled into by other large football players “injury-prone” (most recently, Pouncey suffered an ACL/MCL tear and missed the entire 2013 season after being rolled into by guard David DeCastro very early in Pittsburgh’s Week 1 loss to the Titans), but nobody ever said the NFL was a fair business.
As the Woodley situation proved, regardless of a player’s current production and age, there are no guarantees that he will continue on that same career arc, and that’s especially the case when he has suffered a series of injuries.
But while injuries may take their toll on an individual player, multiple draft-classes that produce nothing in terms of long-term contributors take their toll on NFL franchises.
Thanks to the most recent departures of defensive lineman Evander “Ziggy” Hood and tight end/fullback David Johnson (both from the draft class of 2009), the Steelers have nobody left from their 2008 and 2009 NFL Draft classes. With Pouncey (class of 2010) being one of the few shining stars from its most recent draft classes, Pittsburgh, playoff-less the past two years, might feel significant pressure to make sure he stays put. (Can you imagine the fall-out and second-guessing if Pouncey were to go to another team and continue on his path as one of the best centers in football?)
It’s not going to be an easy decision, and no matter what the Steelers decide, it could really come back to bite them.