clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Breaking down the Steelers Team Needs: Part 8, Offensive Line

New, comments

Speculating on the options if Ramon Foster, B.J. Finney or Marcus Gilbert head off for greener pastures

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Moving on with the series:

The remaining articles in this series require some speculation. The Steelers have no current openings on the Offensive Line, Defensive Line, or at Quarterback. But things do change, players are aging, and standard wisdom says you should draft for how your team will look in Year 3. In 2022 the Steelers’ 2018 Center will be 32; the starting Guards will be 31 and 36; and the starting Tackles will be both be 33. That alone is worth some late round draft capital if a bargain shows up.

There is also the smoke we can whistle up if you want to look for it. Ramon Foster (33 right now) is a free agent who has said he wants to test the market for a deal bigger than Pittsburgh is likely to offer. If he gets that offer there is little doubt that he will go. Marcus Gilbert (30) is nearing the end of his contract, has some good looking talent behind him, and has been injured a lot over both his career and the past two years.

Thus a BPA bargain would be hard to resist on Day 3, and maybe even on Day 2 if the team has reason to believe that Foster really will depart or retire. That is convenient because this particular draft is weak at the top but appears to have a decent number of midrange talents with real potential.

Here is the current roster:

  • C Maurkice Pouncey (age 29). Grade: “Star”. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Pouncey is the flat out best Center in the game, but anyone who’d leave him out of the discussion has a screw loose. His particular assets are a startling football IQ combined with historic levels of mobility. He’s missed games to injury but not in recent years.
  • RG David DeCastro (age 28). Grade: “Star.” He and Pouncey will both be in the HOF conversation when they retire, and in both cases it will be the smarts and mobility that stand out rather than old fashioned power. Both men excel at placing their opponents where they want them rather than digging them out and moving them to a new location. DeCastro has been a rock in his career from the health perspective.
  • LG Ramon Foster (age 33 and a current UFA). Grade: “Starter.” Challengers come and challengers go but the Big Ragu has held his spot for an awful lot of years. People tend to forget that Foster played Tackle in college and actually has decent feet even if he is more of a power-oriented player than Pouncey or DeCastro.
  • RT Marcus Gilbert (age 30). Grade: “Star, but not when he’s stuck in the tub.” [Sigh]. That’s what you will say in future years when the youngsters ask you about Marcus Gilbert. “He really could have been special if he stopped getting hurt each year.” Injuries are a part of the game but Gilbert’s career has suffered as much as anyone who is still in the game. He looked like a Round 2 journeyman for a few years before he blossomed into a true, shutdown Right Tackle under Coach Munchak’s tutelage. Steeler Nation was outraged when he failed to make all-pro despite totally blanking the best pass rushers in the game. But facts are facts. He pretty much missed 2017. And then 2018. And there is good depth behind him. What does that bode for the future?
  • LT Alejandro Villanueva (age 30). Grade: “Starter (and folk hero).” Big Al and Big Ragu are peas in a pod when it comes to quality. They have a job to do and they do it well without any flashy, all-star bells and whistles. He’s older than you’d guess because of all that time in the military.
  • BACKUP C/G B.J. Finney (age 27 and a current RFA). Grade: “Starter in waiting.” Finney has played will whenever he was asked to. The sample size is too small to know for sure, but no one seems to doubt that he could step in ably for any interior position. So do we expect him to step right up and replace Foster if he leaves? We really don’t want him to. It’s not so much the fear that he’d be significantly worse. Bad things happen when your backup Center is starter at some other spot. Centers, like QB’s, are the only players who touch the ball on any play. They also work with the QB on all the line calls. A team that loses both the starting and the backup Center is [carnal reference removed]. But he’s also too good to stay in Pittsburgh forever if he is only there in case of injury. Catch 22.
  • BACKUP C/G #2 Patrick Morris (2018 Rookie UDFA). Grade: “Freak athlete so who knows?” Our own Igloojoe brought Morris up in conversation so it is only fair to defer to his description:

I have no idea how [Morris] went undrafted. He played center at TCU, but what really stole the show is his physical grades. Patrick Morris had the 2nd highest Sparq score out of all olineman tested last year, behind only Kolton Miller with 128.2. He has top 3 scores in the broad and vert for an olineman since 1987 (When NFL combine results started tracking these things). His three cone was better than Dupree’s and his short shuttle was just .1 seconds slower than James Washington’s.

  • #1 BACKUP T/G Matt Feiler (age 26 and a current ERFA). Grade: “Starter.” Feiler played good ball when called on to replace Marcus Gilbert for most of 2018. His calling cards are strength and Munch-trained technique which, according to Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley, would allow him to move inside to Guard if he had to.
  • #2 BACKUP T Chukwuma Okorafor (2018 rookie). Played surprisingly well - as a rookie! - against no less than Von Miller. “Chuks” was advertised as an all-world athlete of potential waiting to be molded by Coach Munchak and the early signs suggest that it might be true. At this point he is purely a Tackle but it is possible that an NFL offseason will add the grown man strength he’d need to move inside.
  • #3 BACKUP T Jerald Hawkins (entering the final, 4th year of his rookie deal). Drafted as a very young, very raw prospect with fantastic feet. Rookie Year: Showed thrilling movement and promise but was just too small to get the job done and was placed on IR with a shoulder injury that people winked over. Year 2: Came in looking like Ulysses with the strength problem solved. Backup Tackle who never played and found himself fighting with Matt Feiler for the spot behind Chris Hubbard. Was Hawkins stalled or was Feiler that good? Year 3: Looked like Feiler was winning but it wasn’t over... until Hawkins blew out a quad injury and lost the season. Year 4: Who can guess?
  • #4 BACKUP T Zach Banner (entering year 3). A 6’8” monster of a man picked up on waivers from the Panthers via the Browns via the Colts. On the 53 as an emergency reserve for three games at the end of 2018. Who knows?
  • GUYS NAMED JOE. Steelers.com has a few other names but that would be deep research.

Moral of the story: The Steelers line is manned by all-stars and very solid starters but there are a few asterisks. Gilbert keeps getting hurt, Finney is both the only designated backup at Guard and Center, and also too good to stay in Pittsburgh if he will never have a chance to play. And the young depth at Tackle looks very promising but Chuks needs to make a Sophomore leap, Hawkins is laden with a ton of question marks, and we aren’t 100% sure that either of them could play Guard even in an emergency.

Thus the Steelers can be expected to focus their attention on players who can play inside, and ideally ones who can duplicate Finney’s ability to back up at both Center and Guard well enough to allow B.J. to either take over Foster’s starting role or leave in free agency in a year or two.

PROSPECTS IN THE DRAFT

This list includes only the prospects who are Guard-capable. That’s true of a great many players who can also play Tackle, but not all. For the sake of brevity I am (with one exception) omitting the description for all the OL prospects so good that there is zero chance they will be available in Round 3, and assigning an unfair grade of 3:01 for those who should not fall to Round 3 but could if the world goes batty. Here is the list, drawn from the initial BTSC Big Board that Nick Farabaugh and I have been compiling: [fn]

The “Ain’t Gonna Happen List” (Too Good or Too Purely A Tackle)

—- OL/TACKLE/GUARD Yodny Cajuste, W. Va. 6’4”, 316 lbs.

—- OL/TACKLE Greg Little, Ole Miss. 6’6”, 325 lbs.

—- OL/TACKLE Jawaan Taylor, Florida. 6’5”, 334 lbs.

—- OL/TACKLE Jonah Williams, Alabama. 6’5”, 301 lbs.

—- OL/TACKLE David Edwards, Wisconsin. 6’7”, 315 lbs.

And now for the prospects who could actually happen:

  • 2:01 OL/GUARD/TACKLE Cody Ford, Oklahoma. 6’4”, 330 lbs. Wait! Shouldn’t he be on the “Ain’t Gonna Happen List”? This kid is a first round player all day long! Yep. He sure is. But your author’s draft crush is big enough to believe that Pittsburgh would leap to take him in Round 2 if Foster departs, and that the F.O. would do cartwheels all the rest of the night. Cody Ford is the prospect that O-Line junkies pray for. His feet are good enough to get drafted as a Left Tackle and to excel as a Right Tackle, but his calling card is power and he has HOF potential as a Guard. It’s easy to see him as a perpetual all-pro from Year 2 on. Here is a December scouting rave [ahem] profile from Jon Ledyard along with an equally complimentary follow-up from the entire Draft Network crew.
  • ≥ 3:01 G/C Elgton Jenkins, Miss. St. 6’4”, 313 lbs. A genuine technician and one of the best Centers in the draft. Needs to prove that he has the athleticism to pair with all his other assets. Film watchers will love him. Here is an October scouting profile from Jon Ledyard.
  • ≥ 3:01 G Chris Lindstrom, Boston Coll. 6’4”, 305 lbs. A complete Guard who’s all but plug and play ready to start in the pro game. Here is a 3-reviewer January scouting profile.
  • ≥ 3:01 G Dalton Risner, Kansas St. 6’5”, 308 lbs. A fine, athletic Right Tackle prospect for other teams but a top Guard from the Pittsburgh perspective, who could step in quickly for an aging/departing Ramon Foster. Guard may even be his best position since he doesn’t have the length or footwork teams look for at Tackle. He fits the Steeler profile (mobile and tough rather than huge and mauling) to a tee. Discounted for lack of need.
  • 3:12 T/G Michael Deiter, Wisconsin. 6’6”, 321 lbs. Built like a shorter-armed Tackle but more comfortable inside because he lacks that essential knack of setting deep enough to handle really fast edge rushers. No particular flaws on the inside so long as he keeps his pads down. Very strong and exceptionally good at pulling. Will have potential to play across the line if coaching can help him develop a deeper pass set for the edge. Here is a Christmas scouting profile.
  • 3:12 T/G Drew Samia, Oklahoma. 6’5”, 300 lbs. A 4-year starter at Tackle who made up for his lack of size with exceptional athleticism. This 2-reviewer December scouting profile lauds him as “One of the best pulling offensive linemen in the country [and] consistently explosive out of his stance.” If an undersized but superior athlete can still succeed in the NFL, Samia is the guy who will do it. But at what position?
  • 3:24 C Garrett Bradbury, NC State. 6’3”. 300 lbs. He has everything you want in a Center but true country strength; a nimble-footed, throwback player fans will appreciate. Could be Maurkice Pouncey’s successor if Finney ends up at Guard and Morris fails to blossom..
  • 3:24 G Garrett Brumfield, LSU. 6’2”, 300 lbs. A bit undersized for a Guard but blessed with exceptional mobility and the right amount of nasty.
  • 4:12 T/G Andre Dillard, Wash. St. 6’5”, 310 lbs. Exactly like the sort of player that Pittsburgh thrived on when Coach Munchak was here: a great athlete with good size and a series of technical flaws that great coaching could help him to fix. Redshirt year for sure but still a good prospect.
  • 4:24 G Ben Powers, Oklahoma. 6’4”, 314 lbs. A football player to his bones but not the athlete that Pittsburgh seems to favor on the offensive line.
  • 5:01 T/G Cody Conway, Syracuse. 6’6”, 296 lbs. Tough as nails but he needs some work with an NFL strength coach and some training to loosen up in the hips. Great leverage and hands already. Played Tackle in college but who can guess for the NFL. Will require at least a year to build his physique.
  • 5:16 G Beau Benzschawel, Wisconsin. 6’5”, 317 lbs. A big, strong, tough dig-em-out run blocker. Discounted to an extra unfair extent because he’s a phone booth guy who doesn’t move as well as the Steelers prefer. Here is a Christmas scouting profile.
  • 5:16 G Nate Davis, Charlotte. 6’3”, 311 lbs. A dominant small school Tackle who projects to be a pretty good Guard prospect for the NFL. Strong, nimble and powerful enough to interest the Steelers as a good Day 3 investment. Here is a New Year scouting profile.
  • 5:16 OL Mitch Hyatt, Clemson. 6’5”, 310 lbs. A slightly undersized but great athlete who needs a serious year of work with an NFL strength coach, and another with a good enough coach to help him fix some significant technical flaws. Played Tackle in college but that is anyone’s guess for the NFL.
  • 5:16 OL/CENTER Sam Mustipher, Notre Dame. 6’3”, 306 lbs. Stiff at times, but his play strength is impressive and there’s something about him that reminds you of B.J. Finney.
  • 6:01 G Lester Cotton, Alabama. 6’4”, 325 lbs. Can you spell ‘road grader’? He isn’t exactly immobile but he does project better for a power-oriented, play-in-a-phone-booth system than the athletic, in-space game Pittsburgh has been using. Discounted accordingly.
  • 6:16 C/G Alec Eberle, Florida St. 6’3”, 294 lbs. The tools are there, he can play both Guard and Center, and he has the fluidity movement that Pittsburgh likes. But he is also raw, undersized, and got flat-out abused at the Shrine Game, which confirmed what a lot of critics had to say about his inconsistent tape. Might still be worth the flier on Day 3.
  • 6:16 C Ross Pierschbacher, Alabama. 6’4”, 309 lbs. Solid, effective, good enough, and likely to make a team. The issues? He seems to be just a guy, without some special athletic, strength or technical asset to separate him from the pack.
  • 7:16 T/G Alex Bars, Notre Dame. 6’6”, 315 lbs. A budding star (for college) who suffered a twin ACL/MCL tear in 2018. He could have been a Day 2 prospect but not anymore.
  • 7:16 G Martez Ivey, Florida. 6’5”, 315 lbs. Huge and strong but slow of hand and foot, and raw as all get out. The Steelers won’t mind the lack of technique but they like their linemen with more mobility.

The Steelers clearly have no “need” on the Offensive Line. It is a team strength. But there aren’t a lot of actual needs on this roster, just wants, and there are good reasons why the Steelers might want to select a Guard-capable prospect somewhere in the draft. Do you have any particular favorites, or particular corrections to make to our very tentative initial grades? Please share below in the Comments!

[FN] For those who don’t know, we organize the BTSC Big Board by a grade called “Highest Value”. An HV of 1:20 means the player is a reach for the Steelers at any point before Pick # 20 overall but good value at any point from the end of the 1st on. Getting that player in the early 2nd would be fine, while getting him at 2:12 would almost be a steal. Yes, this system results in a certain amount of grade inflation for positions of need because we are talking about the “highest” grade rather than where a player is expected to go; but it’s balanced by never, ever pushing a grade up because of need. Players with the same HV# are more-or-less equivalent and organized alphabetically.