I have to admit, I stereotype Steelers offensive linemen.
Now, I realize it’s bad to stereotype people, but hear me out—this is a good thing. The moment I heard the Steelers selected Derwin Gray, an offensive tackle from Maryland, in the just-concluded 2019 NFL Draft, the first thing I thought was, “He’s going to be good.”
It’s hard to blame me, really. After all, Gray is a seventh-round pick, and when it comes to offensive linemen that are late-round picks and undrafted free agents, the Steelers are like that girlfriend that brings home some piece of furniture she found sitting out on someone’s curb. At first, you’re like, “Honey, what are we going to do with that?” Next thing you know, it’s 10 years later, your girlfriend left a long time ago, and that random piece of furniture is now one of your most valuable assets.
All it took was a touch of paint and some polish, and that piece of furniture was transformed into a great entertainment unit.
It all started with Kelvin Beachum, a seventh-round pick in 2012 who was so good at left tackle, he helped you forget that the Steelers made a huge mistake by taking a chance on Mike Adams in the second round that very same year.
And then Mike Munchak was named offensive line coach in 2014.
Before you knew it, Alejandro Villanueva, a 2014 undrafted free agent who played receiver and defensive end in college and entered the league as a defensive lineman, was not only protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side, he was doing so at a Pro Bowl level.
Around that same time, B.J. Finney, a 2015 undrafted free agent, began starting games at guard and center in place of David DeCastro, Ramon Foster (a 2009 UDFA) and Maurkice Pouncey.
And let’s not forget about Chris Hubbard, a 2013 undrafted free agent out of UAB who was cut, signed to the practice squad, signed to a future contract, made the Steelers roster, was cut again and then made the Steelers roster again. In 2016 and 2017, Hubbard started a combined 14 games at right tackle for the injured/suspended Marcus Gilbert. Hubbard was so good as a fill-in, when he became a bona fide free agent in the spring of 2018, he bested Beachum’s modest free agent haul with the Jaguars two years earlier by inking a five-year, $37.5 million contract with the Browns.
Now, as the Steelers prepare for the 2019 regular season, the right tackle position should be a major concern, what with the trade of Gilbert to the Cardinals this spring. Yet, it’s not. Why? Because Matt Feiler, a 2014 undrafted free agent out of Bloomsburg, started 10 games there last year and was so effective, nobody cared that Pittsburgh only received a sixth-round pick in return for Gilbert.
With so much recent history of finding those diamonds in the rough on the offensive line, why would anyone doubt that Shaun Sarrett, the highly-thought of successor to the recently-departed Munchak, will be able to turn Gray into something good to even great?
You know that thing with cornerbacks, where nobody has faith that the Steelers can develop them? It’s the exact opposite with offensive linemen—especially the unknown prospects.
I can just picture it now: it’s the spring of 2023. A BTSC headline reads: “Do the Steelers have enough cap space to sign Derwin Gray?”
Of course not. When do they ever have enough cap space? That’s why they couldn’t afford to match the $42 million deal Feiler got as a free agent in 2021.
But the good news is, the Steelers will likely have another late-round pick/undrafted free agent waiting in the wings to take Gray’s place at right tackle.