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Chris Hubbard: An under-the-radar free agent target for Seattle’s offensive line

The Pittsburgh Steelers guard and tackle is set to be an unrestricted free agent this March. Here’s why he should be of interest to the Seahawks.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Seahawks may not be all that active in free agency when it comes to pursuing higher-priced players. However, not all free agents will be commanding big-money deals from their eventual new teams. The Seahawks can certainly find affordable veterans to address some of their current roster needs once free agency begins in mid-March. One player to keep an eye on is Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Chris Hubbard.

Hubbard joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie in 2013, spending that year on the team’s practice squad. In 2014 and 2015, he appeared in just seven total games, with no starts. However, in 2016 he caught a break, earning himself four starts — one in place of left guard Ramon Foster and three in place of right tackle Marcus Gilbert. That on-field confirmation of Hubbard’s prowess and versatility — all while tallying just two penalties and giving up no sacks, according to the Washington Post’s charting — led the Steelers to choose to keep the lineman on the roster rather than letting him leave in free agency.

Hubbard returned to Pittsburgh on a one-year, $1.797 million RFA deal for 2017 and it proved to be the right decision. He ended up starting 10 games last season, mostly at right tackle for Gilbert, who first suffered a hamstring injury, then was suspended four games for a PED violation. Hubbard gave up just four sacks while being flagged three times. He was an integral part of a Steelers’ offensive line that Football Outsiders ranked first in pass protection and seventh in run-blocking on the year. Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks were sacked only 24 times (21 for starter Ben Roethlisberger), while the team’s top running back, Le’Veon Bell, averaged four yards per carry on his 321 rushes.

Though the Steelers might well love to keep Hubbard in the fold in 2018 and beyond, his performance last season seems to point more toward Hubbard taking his chances on the open market. While somewhat of a sleeper free agent, he’s earned the right to start in the NFL. Remaining in Pittsburgh, where no changes are likely to be made to the team’s starting front five this year, no longer makes sense for his career.

Seattle should be one of the teams to reach out to Hubbard’s camp. It’s no secret that Seattle’s offensive line is still in need of improvement, and with Luke Joeckel an unrestricted free agent and Germain Ifedi struggling through 2017, Hubbard’s background playing both left guard and right tackle could certainly attract the attention of Pete Carroll, John Schneider and new offensive line coach Mike Solari.

Hubbard is also just 26 years old. He’s athletic and mobile and, as such, was not only a strong run-blocker in Mike Munchak’s scheme, one which required him to do more than just stay in a phone booth, but he was also able to pass-protect for Roethlisberger, who is notorious for his improvisation and out-of-pocket movement. Both of those would make him an asset to the Seahawks as the team tries to reboot its running game and improve their ability to protect Wilson without limiting his dual-threat identity. Hubbard also fits what Schneider and Solari have both looked for in offensive linemen in the past, as John Gilbert and Samuel Gold have broken down over the winter.

Figuring out Hubbard’s financial value is a bit more complicated than it is for most linemen hitting free agency. Even given Hubbard’s breakout performance in 2017, he’s far from a household name. Still, he should command more than the $3.34 million he’s made in lifetime earnings thus far. For the Seahawks to pay him any amount, however, heavily depends on how they view him. As a right tackle, his value can realistically be viewed at anywhere from $3 million to $6 million in average per-year value; at left guard, he could earn $1.5 to $5 million in per-year averages.

Regardless of the length of the deal, these averages vary significantly. With Hubbard spending most of 2017 at right tackle and the Seahawks’ immediate vacancy on the line at left guard, it may make little logical sense for Hubbard to want to do the latter when he can be better paid to do the former. Seattle would likely have to view Hubbard as a replacement for Ifedi, or for Ifedi and/or Joeckel, and pay him accordingly, to win a bidding war that is based on money alone. That, of course, assumes a bidding war would break out; Hubbard is, after all, one of 76 offensive linemen who are unrestricted free agents ahead of the March 14 start of the league year.

But if there’s a way that the Seahawks and Hubbard can see eye-to-eye on Hubbard’s role in Seattle and the compensation that reflects it, he’d be a strong addition to the offensive line. He fits what the coaching and front office staff want from their guards and tackles, brings more veteran experience to a position group that needs it and should come at a price that would not significantly deplete the team’s cap space.