The Steelers signed center Maurkice Pouncey to an extension last week that will pay him an average of $8 million per season. The next Steelers offensive lineman likely to cash in on a big contract is right tackle Marcus Gilbert, though it's unclear at this point if the Steelers will be the team signing his checks beyond the 2014 season.
Gilbert, who has started 35 games over his first three seasons in the league, is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Gilbert said his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has approached the Steelers about a long-term deal. A source indicated those discussions are preliminary in nature.
The Steelers have some salary-cap space to execute new contracts before the season, but Gilbert has to get in line. Cornerback Cortez Allen, also a member of the 2011 draft class, is in the final year of his rookie contract. Ben Roethlisberger and Jason Worilds are candidates for extensions, though negotiations with Worilds are stalled at the moment.
Gilbert is scheduled to make $815,000 this season, and he can expect to at least quadruple his salary in his next contract. The market was set for Gilbert earlier this year when the top available free-agent right tackles secured deals worth between $4 million and $6 million per season.
The best free-agent deal for a right tackle belonged to Austin Howard, who signed a five-year, $30 million deal with the Raiders. Michael Oher was next with a four-year, $20 million deal with the Titans and Breno Giacomini followed with a four-year, $18 million contract with the Jets.
Of that trio, only Giacomini had a better overall grade than Gilbert in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. Giacomini was the 41st-ranked tackle in the league. Gilbert was No. 44, followed by Howard at No. 47 and Oher at No. 68.
Gilbert smiled when asked if he was aware of the free-agent contracts that were signed over the offseason.
"They looked pretty good," he said. "But that's nothing I'm worried about. My agent is working on that right now. He's looking into it. I just want to go out there and play. I'm just here to play football."
Gilbert, who was the team's second-round pick in 2011, said his desire is to remain with the Steelers.
"I love it here," he said. "I wouldn't want to go anywhere else. My agent is working on that. I'm not worried about it. I'm just coming out here trying to get better, trying to become a complete player, trying to win a Super Bowl. I know the guys we have up front -- they drafted us there for a reason -- we're the group that can get us over the hump. It's time now. It's time for us to get going. Every guy has a chip on their shoulder."
Gilbert is one of four offensive linemen on the roster drafted in the first or second round in the past five years. Pouncey and David DeCastro were the team's first-round picks in 2010 and 2012. Mike Adams was the second-round pick in 2012.
Gilbert was the only one of that foursome to start every game last season. Those 16 starts came after he missed 12 games with an ankle injury in 2012. Having an entire offseason without any health issues was a benefit for Gilbert, who believes his training is setting him up for a breakthrough season in 2014.
"As you get older you realize your snaps are limited," he said. "You only play the game for so long. I just want to maximize every chance I have to be here and show them what I'm worth. I don't want to miss any time. I don't want anyone to take my reps. That's the type of demeanor you have to have."
Gilbert is playing for his third offensive line coach with the Steelers. New coach Mike Munchak is re-implementing the outside zone blocking scheme that was abandoned early last season after Pouncey was injured, as well as working individually with each player and their fundamentals.
"He's tweaking different areas in our game," Gilbert said. "It's showing out here. It's crazy how a coach like him can share with us his experience, what worked best for him and what will work best for us. It's been working out great for us. I feel like I've been having the best offseason I had since I've been here."
Gilbert acknowledged Munchak will have a big say in whether he gets a second contract with the Steelers. Pouncey quickly impressed Munchak and was rewarded with a $48 million dollar deal.
Gilbert knows a lot is riding on his performance in 2014 if a long-term deal is not reached before the season.
"I see a lot of improvement in my game, in the run and the pass game," Gilbert said. "I just want to become a complete and top right tackle in the game. I know I'm capable of doing it and they know I'm capable of doing it."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.