There was a time during Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s career when the offensive line was considered the weakest part of the team, and by a fairly wide margin.
From 2009 to 2012, the Steelers had one of the weaker units. Three current starters were still finding their way: Maurkice Pouncey was bearing the weight of the rest of the unit, Marcus Gilbert was just beginning to discover the value of conditioning and now-All-Pro guard David DeCastro was just a rookie. Guard Ramon Foster was an undrafted free agent and the situation at left tackle had been unsettled for a long time.
And in 2013, it looked like the investment wasn’t going to pay off in the way everyone had expected.
While rookie running back Le’Veon Bell had himself a good season, Roethlisberger’s sacks increased from 30 in 2012 to 42 in 2013. The revamped line, combined with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s offense, wasn’t protecting the quarterback like it was expected, despite being the primary reason for the new players and the new offensive scheme.
Enter offensive line coach Mike Munchak, stage left.
It was as if a light was switched on. A few key things suddenly clicked. Roethlisberger settled into Haley’s quick-passing offense behind a line that did its job, and did it consummately well.
Pouncey was no longer forced to pull the rest of the line along with him, as Gilbert had quietly become one of the best right tackles in the game, while DeCastro was well on his way to his first All-Pro selection. Foster was exceeding every possible expectation and defying every convention, as a big mauler in a scheme that typically calls for superior athletes. And a stud had emerged from the darndest of places when Kelvin Beachum was forced into duty. Beachum looked nothing like a prototypical left tackle, and had no business playing like one either. Yet, there he was. An injury a season later opened the door for yet another atypical left tackle, Alejandro Villanueva — who, if anything, has exceeded Beachum’s level of growth and production.
Even the backups are playing well above the line. And it’s all thanks to Munchak.
I rambled on through that history lesson to get to this point: the Steelers have very little need right now on the offensive line, and there is little doubt among fans that Munchak could take just about any 300-pound yahoo off the street and turn him into a Pro Bowl-caliber lineman in a single off-season.
That may be a bit naive and pie-in-the-sky, but the reality is Munchak has developed that degree of stigma in his three seasons leading the Steelers’ offensive line. When you can take a guy with no experience on the offensive line and turn him into a trusted started in a little over a year, you earn that respect. Munchak is the MacGyver of coaches: given the barest of raw materials, he’ll build the Taj Mahal.
The team does have to deal a bit with free agency, but even that is limited. Villanueva, guard/center B.J. Finney and guard Chris Hubbard are exclusive-rights free agents, meaning the team does not have them under contract for 2017, but they also have pretty much total control over whether those players return. It’s unlikely either will be playing anywhere else come September. The only other lineman who saw any playing time who will be a free agent is Cody Wallace, and it was already looking increasingly unlikely that he would be offered a new contract, anyway.
With all of that said, the prospects of the Steelers drafting an offensive lineman early — if at all — are slim at the very best. That’s partly due to the dearth of top-tier talent at any of the positions this year, but mostly because the Steelers wouldn’t be likely to look that way much, anyway. Even looking beyond the starters, the depth is already there. Finney looks to be an interior star in the making having picked up a few starts filling in due to injury and acquitting himself well. Hubbard has slowly become a solid-if-unspectacular backup, as well -- and that might be one of Munchak’s greatest accomplishments.
On the outside, Ryan Harris was a free-agent pickup in 2016 from the then-champion Denver Broncos. Jerald Hawkins had a fine training camp until being lost for the year due to injury. Even Brian Mihalik has flashed a good deal of potential.
There are certainly possibilities in later rounds, of course, but not many. At guard, where the Steelers might have the greatest long-term need with Foster being the oldest member of the unit, Ohio State’s Pat Elflein would be the best all-around pick who might still be available on day three. Western Michigan’s Taylor Moton could be intriguing as a guy who could back up at both guard and tackle, and has the size for it: 6’-5”, 330 pounds and big, 10.75-inch hands to help control his opponent’s body at the point of attack.
Further back there are some potential diamonds in a lot of rough. IUP’s Ethan Cooper played tackle in college but is projected to move to guard as a pro because he is undersized for tackle. Of course, if that’s conjuring memories of Beachum, that’s understandable, as the same thing was said about him. Finally, I’d keep an eue on Tennessee State’s Jessamen Dunker, who had himself a good showing at the Senior Bowl.
Whatever the Steelers do for the offensive line in the draft, it’s safe to make the assumption they will only be drafting for depth in such a weak class and for a unit that is already the strongest on the entire team. Of course, if there is one thing you can definitely say about the Steelers’ offensive line, it’s this: where you end up has little, if anything, to do with your pedigree.