The Pouncey Conundrum

With the upcoming offseason will come a number of very difficult decisions for the management of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  As noted in multiple sources, we are in a little bit of trouble with regard to the 2014 salary cap – as yet unknown.  In addition to the numerous free agents in the current squad, there are a number of player who are earning way more than their production demands.  These will have to be dealt with.  Then there is the problem of possible extensions ahead of 2015’s free agency and perhaps our marquee 2015 free agent – Maurkice Pouncey.

Early in the first quarter of our season opener against Tennessee, right guard David DeCastro attempted a cut block on the Titans nose tackle.  The cut block has become a hugely controversial play given the low trajectory of the blocking player which can cause serious injury to the targeted player.  Houston Texans Linebacker Brian Cushing has suffered two serious injuries in two consecutive seasons thanks to cut blocks, a play that the Texans use a great deal themselves.

Instead of taking out the opposing NT, DeCastro’s 316lb frame plowed into Maurkice Pouncey’s right knee, tearing the three-time pro-bowl center’s ACL and MCL.

Pouncey was replaced by Kelvin Beachum in the short term, but the team moved quickly and signed veteran Fernando Velasco who was, coincidentally, released by the Titans on 31 August, only a few days before Pouncey went down.  Velasco had started 16 games the previous season with the Titans, 13 at center.

Since coming in and making his debut in week 2 against Cincinnati, Velasco has been very good.  I don’t get to see every Steelers game, living in Houston, but in those I have seen, including the Ravens game which I was actually at, I’ve been struck by the lack of apparent drop-off from our pro-bowler to our free agent replacement.

After his injury, some reports (notably Scott Brown on ESPN.com, 9/9/13) cited Pouncey as “arguably the top center in the NFL”.  In his Sunday column for the Trib, Dejan Kovacevic noted that Pro Football Focus had graded Pouncey as the 12th best center in 2012.

Pouncey is coming into the final year of his rookie contract.  He’s earning $2,527,875 this season and is scheduled to make $2,829,000 next season.  I think it’s fair to expect that Maurkice is going to expect a pay raise when he comes to renegotiating his deal.  More importantly, it’s probably fair that he should get one.  Three pro-bowl appearances in three NFL seasons tells you how good he has been.  The question is what can Pouncey reasonably expect?

Ryan Kalil earns $8,186,000 this season; Nick Mangold $7,153,286; Max Unger $6,458,750; Scott Wells $6,375,000; Chris Myers $6,250,000.

Pouncey has been fairly durable.  He had missed three regular season games but he suffered an ankle sprain which caused him to miss the 2011 Superbowl defeat to Green Bay, where Doug Legursky played center.  He plays arguably the toughest position in football.  The center has to read the opposing defense, snap the ball (accurately!) and block.  The speed that some of the behemoths who play defensive line across the NFL make these last two tasks particularly onerous.  Let’s not overlook the constant physical trauma that these players go through, evidenced by the compelling and disturbing “League of Denial”, either.

The question of whether or not we should renew Pouncey’s deal is tied up in the relative value of Velasco, rightly or wrongly.  Velasco is earning $522,352.  That’s nearly $100,000 less than LaRod Stephens-Howling.  Have his performances been a notable drop off from Pouncey?  You’d struggle to convince many that they have.  Behind the Steel Curtain suggested that the team might improve without Pouncey, even prior to Velasco’s first game.

The key to me is money.  Given our ridiculous salary cap situation next season, as I noted in an earlier blog some sources have us left with a spare $63k, it might not be a terrible idea to trade Pouncey.  He has significant value to a franchise in need of a franchise center.  Pouncey is likely to demand, and probably deserves, a significantly better deal than his rookie contract.  Ryan Kalil is getting $49M over six years at Carolina (although only $750,000 this season) and just under half of that is guaranteed.  Kalil is also a three-time pro-bowler.  Will Pouncey demand the same sort of money?  Perhaps.

If we decide to roll with Velasco next season, then the question becomes what should we do about Maurkice?  He has a year remaining on his rookie deal and unless we are incredibly creative with our salary structure, we just can’t afford to keep him on a Ryan Kalil-type deal.

My view?  Time to let Pouncey further his career somewhere else.  Thanks for everything, Maurkice, but there are other positions where we need to try and improve our quality.  Perhaps by trading him we can free up some space to sign a free agent, or perhaps even bring in a draft pick to try and set us up for the 2014 season.

For what it’s worth, Pouncey is not the only player currently under contract who I would be happy for us to shed, but that is a topic for another post.

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