Extension Candidate: Maurkice Pouncey

Few injuries during the 2013 season were more devastating to a team than Maurkice Pouncey‘s torn ACL and MCL. The anchor in the middle of the Steelers’ offensive line went down with the knee injury in the first week of the regular season, leaving a huge hole to fill at center and depriving him of an opportunity to open his NFL career with four straight Pro Bowl seasons.Maurkice Pouncey

However, Pouncey appears healthy and ready to go for the 2014 season, the last year of his rookie contract. A pair of Steelers beat writers – Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette and Alan Robinson of the Tribune-Review – wrote this week that the team figures to make every effort to lock its center up to a new deal before the season gets underway, and that Pouncey represents the Steeler most likely to sign an extension this summer. So it’s worth examining exactly what sort of contract the two sides may negotiate.

Prior to that 2013 season lost to injury, Pouncey had been the Steelers’ starter in the middle of the line since entering the league as the 18th overall pick in 2010. While his three Pro Bowl berths – and a 2011 All-Pro nod – would suggest that he became one of the NFL’s elite centers immediately upon entering the league, Pouncey’s Pro Football Focus grades (subscription required) tell a different story. According to PFF, the Florida product was the 21st-best player at his position in 2010, 19th in 2011, and 12th in 2012.

Pro Football Focus’ grades are hardly the be-all, end-all of player evaluation, particularly at a position where there are so few traditional statistics to evaluate a player’s production. Even so, PFF’s numbers exhibit that at least one metric considers Pouncey to be a player steadily improving toward the ranks of the elite, but one who may not quite be there yet. By comparison, Alex Mack of the Browns, who entered the league one year before Pouncey, has never ranked outside PFF’s top 10 centers, and maxed out at fourth overall in 2013.

Mack makes for a good point of comparison, since he hit free agency this offseason and became the NFL’s highest-paid center by annual average value. The five-year, $42MM offer sheet Mack signed with the Jaguars – which was subsequently matched by Cleveland – works out to $8.4MM per year, slightly edging the annual salaries of other elite centers like Carolina’s Ryan Kalil and Nick Mangold of the Jets. At the time of Mack’s signing, Bouchette suggested that Pouncey could make a case that he should land a deal even larger than that, making him the new highest-paid center in the league.

Still, I’d be a little surprised if Pouncey ultimately inked an extension that exceeded Mack’s $8.4MM per year, Kalil’s $19MM in guaranteed money, or Mangold’s $54.075MM total value. There’s certainly no question that Pouncey deserves to be in the conversation with those players, given all that he’s accomplished early in his career, plus the fact that he’s only entering his age-25 season. But he’s coming off a serious injury, and even before that injury, the data suggested he wasn’t quite playing at the elite level of some of his fellow centers, in spite of the Pro Bowl nods.

While Pouncey should be in line for a very nice payday, I expect him and the Steelers to agree to a price just below where Mack landed. Something in the neighborhood of five years and $40MM, with $15MM+ in guaranteed money, seems fair to me. We’ll have to see if Pouncey and the Steelers agree — if they don’t, and Pittsburgh remains motivated to get a deal done, that price could creep a little higher.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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