The Pittsburgh Steelers spent a third round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on Chukwuma Okorafor from Western Michigan, and this shouldn’t be understated. Okorafor was brought in for a specific reason, the only question now is what the reason was?
The immediate reaction after the selection was Okorafor has NFL size and potential, but rarely lived up to either of the aforementioned characteristics. I learned years ago not to bet against Mike Munchak, and his ability to get every last ounce of potential out of every lineman he encounters. It doesn’t matter if they are a top draft pick like Maurkice Pouncey, or an undrafted rookie free agent like B.J. Finney.
Munchak knows how to coach ‘em up.
With the introduction of Okorafor to the offensive tackle position group, his presence will be noticeable. In fact, the Steelers drafting him likely had several players looking over their shoulders — but who?
The easiest guess is Jerald Hawkins. The former fourth round draft pick out of LSU had a great rookie training camp before injuring his shoulder, and all reports out of camp last year, his sophomore season, were underwhelming. Okorafor could take Hawkins’ position as swing tackle, making Hawkins expendable.
But what about Marcus Gilbert? No, I’m not suggesting such a raw talent as Okorafor replace Gilbert, a second round pick out of Florida, but with Gilbert already at the age of 30, and his contract expiring after the 2019 season, you have to wonder if Okorafor was drafted as Gilbert’s heir apparent at right tackle.
Some have suggested the Steelers could use Okorafor as a guard/tackle, like they did Chris Hubbard before his departure, but it is unknown whether Okorafor, who has reportedly lacked motivation and overall tenacity, would be able to take on such a role in his first NFL season.
Plain and simple, regardless of how the Steelers utilize Okorafor, he provides a great amount of competition at the tackle position. Not just for Gilbert and Hawkins, but also for players like Matt Feiler. What seemed like a pretty secure depth chart before the 2018 NFL Draft has turned into a training camp battle worth watching.
Will Okorafor beat out Hawkins as the main reserve tackle? Will he have the look of the eventual starting right tackle for the black-and-gold? Or will he be the offensive lineman to foil Mike Munchak’s near perfect record when sculpting linemen?
Only time will tell what transpires, but the Steelers taking a tackle on Day 2 of the NFL Draft speaks volumes. If Hawkins wants to keep his job, and if Gilbert is hoping to stay in Pittsburgh outside of his current contract, they might want to up their game.
Because after the team drafted Okorafor, other tackles have been put on notice.