Training camp looms large for Pittsburgh Steelers fans as the team reports during the upcoming week. While there are no battles for any starting positions on offense, the battles for backups and other roster spots will be intense. Fans are licking their chops to view rookies Mason Rudolph and Jaylen Samuels as they step onto the field and vie for spots, but the tussle for what might be the biggest backup position oddly isn’t receiving any chatter. The backup tackle, or ‘Swing Tackle’, position could either be the linchpin of a successful offense, or the Achilles’ heel of a sputtering, dysfunctional unit.
Why would fans care about the backup tackle fray? Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva has played more than 90-percent of all game snaps in 30 of 32 games during the past two seasons, while Marcus Gilbert has not been so dependable. Gilbert, the Steelers’ starting right tackle, has missed parts of five games during his seven-year career. The last two years Gilbert played 90 percent or more of all snaps in 15 of 32 games. And 2017 was marred, not only by injury, but also by a PED suspension.
Offensive tackle depth should be a concern with the departure of 2017 Swing Tackle Chris Hubbard, plus the season-ending injury to 2016 fourth-rounder Jerald Hawkins. The next man up will be decided during training camp and preseason.
Candidates for Swing Tackle:
Steelers.com lists Joseph Cheek, Matt Feiler, Larson Graham, Chukwuma Okorafor, and Jake Rodgers as tackles, while Bryce Harris and RJ Prince each have a generic offensive linemen designation. (Ourlads.com lists Feiler, Cheek, and Prince as guards.)
Prince, an undrafted rookie out of North Carolina, may have the toughest road due to being the only player with no NFL experience.
Cheek has bounced around teams since going undrafted in 2016 out of Texas A&M.
Graham, an undrafted rookie in 2017, made the initial 53-man roster of the Atlanta Falcons. The Duquesne alum didn’t last long, though, and was cut in mid-September.
Rodgers has bounced around since being picked in the seventh round by the Falcons in 2015. He played college ball for Eastern Washington and spent four weeks on the Steelers’ practice squad in 2017.
Harris, an undrafted rookie in 2012 out of Fresno State, was picked up by Atlanta. He has bounced around the league ever since. Harris bounced around three different NFL rosters in 2017. He has seen only 15 snaps since 2014.
Okorafor, a 2018 third-round rookie out of Western Michigan, looks to make a splash and perhaps jump-start his career but, having been overpowered during the 2018 Senior Bowl, many experts have expressed the sentiment he would be an NFL project.
Feiler has bounced around the league since going undrafted in 2014. He has the most experience with Pittsburgh of the others on the list. Spending the 2015 season on the practice squad and most of the 2016 season, Feiler made the 2017 roster and played 16 snaps at the tackle position. In Week 17, while the Steelers sat many of their starters, Feiler was given the chance to start at right guard and played a full complement of snaps.
The lack of NFL experience among this group has black-and-gold fans nervous. But training camp should weed out players and their positions, while giving fans an opportunity to see what the initial depth-charts will look like. Live action during preseason games will give individuals in this group opportunities to sink or swim.
As Ben Roethlisberger has suffered his share of injuries during his long, Hall of Fame career, having an unproven backup is a concern. An injury to one of the offensive line starters could lead Big Ben to take more punishment this season than he bargained for. Fans can only hope that, if the Swing Tackle is needed, the player who takes his spot doesn’t become a liability who puts the quarterback’s health at risk. A prolonged absence might have a cascading effect on the Steelers’ performance — or, on the other hand, it might see the emergence of the next “Villanueva.”
Which player do you think comes away winning the Swing Tackle position? Who do you consider as the dark horse?