Steelers offensive right tackle Marcus Gilbert always possessed the natural talent to excel in the NFL. Now, he believes he has developed the off-field habits that will help him take the next step in his career.
Gilbert, a second-round draft pick out of Florida in 2011, said he is feeling strong and confident after following a strict diet over the offseason that has improved his fitness level. If the first week of training camp is any indication, Gilbert is primed for a strong season. He has been one of the most impressive offensive linemen in the first week of workouts.
Gilbert has been a brick wall in one-on-one pass-rush drills and has teamed up with David DeCastro on the right side of the line to provide some running lanes in team drills.
"I wanted to be able to sustain and finish drives," Gilbert said Friday. "At times last year, I was winded at the end of drives and pretty tired. Now, I just feel like I'm in the best shape. I'm staying on top of the small things to help me stay on the field longer."
Gilbert is 6 feet 6 and 330 pounds, but he is noticeably leaner. His personal trainer suggested a meal plan to help improve his conditioning level.
He has cut red meat out of his diet and has limited his starch intake. His protein comes from chicken and fish, and he now consumes large amounts of fruits and vegetables, which are low in calories but satisfy his appetite.
"I really conditioned myself pretty hard this offseason," Gilbert said. "That was my key focus, being in high condition. I've always had a trainer, but I never followed a meal plan at all. This year, my trainer said let's try it and see how it works out. At first, I struggled with it because a lot of the foods I didn't like. But as I started to see my body change and how my body felt, I felt so fine and I just stuck with the plan."
Gilbert had many reasons to get into top shape. He is entering the final year of his contract and can become a free agent after this season. The top right tackles in the 2014 free-agent market earned contracts between $4 million and $6 million per season.
That's if Gilbert does not sign a long-term contract with the Steelers before the season begins. According to sources, the Steelers and Gilbert's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, have been in discussions about a long-term contract.
Friday, the Steelers signed place-kicker Shaun Suisham to a contract extension that prevents him from hitting free agency after this season. There was no news to report on negotiations with Cortez Allen and Jason Worilds, who also are entering the final years of their contracts.
The Steelers might be motivated to get a deal done with Gilbert because their depth at tackle is lacking. Mike Adams, the team's second-round pick in 2012, is following up his poor 2013 season with an equally dismal start to training camp.
Also, rookie fifth-round pick Wesley Johnson, the only offensive lineman selected in the draft, has not played well enough to ensure a spot on the 53-man roster unless he shows big improvement.
That leaves Guy Whimper as the top backup tackle, and he's not someone the team views as a long-term starter.
Gilbert has started 24 games in his first three seasons, including all 16 last year. He was the only Steelers lineman to start all 16 games. According to Pro Football Focus, Gilbert was 50th among 76 tackles in the NFL last season. He gave up 11 sacks and allowed 30 quarterback hurries.
The Steelers took steps to improve the offensive line play when they fired Jack Bicknell and hired Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame player and long-time NFL offensive line coach.
Gilbert has enjoyed working with Munchak and is motivated to reach the high expectations that were set for him. He's not the only one. There is a collective mindset among the group that it's time to fulfill the expectations.
The Steelers have used a lot of high-round draft choices on offensive linemen in recent years, and they would like to see that group develop into a consistent unit. DeCastro was a first-round pick in 2012 and Maurkice Pouncey, who missed last season with a knee injury, was a first-round pick in 2010.
"We've had injuries, and guys were shuffling around me," Gilbert said. "I feel like the continuity is starting to build up and the consistency is growing.
"I'm just excited to grow with the guys because everyone has one goal, to be the line we can be."
On the Web
■ For more photos and video from Steelers training camp in Latrobe, log on to post-gazette.com and check out the Steelers Blog.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.