Can you believe that preseason is under a week away? Hard to actually wrap our collective heads around that but it is here. With the preseason and season quickly approaching there are many battles taking place in training camp that will presumably last into the preseason. While four positions along the offensive line are set in stone, the right tackle and backup linemen positions are not so clear.
The Steelers know what they have in right guard David DeCastro, center Maurkice Pouncey, left guard Ramon Foster and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. The quadruplets have 13 Pro Bowls between them and are viewed as the anchors of one of the best pass-blocking lines in the NFL.
The Steelers organization liked what they saw out of Matt Feiler over the 2016 and 2017 seasons that the team traded away right tackle Marcus Gilbert in 2018. In 10 starts Feiler held his own and was not a liability but he did not make the Pro Bowl either. That is something that is not expected out of an undrafted rookie free agent picked off the scrap heap from the Houston Texans in 2017. Fans and coaches have high expectations that he can keep the progression going in 2019 but will he and will he win the starting gig? To answer that, we need to check out the competition at right tackle.
Former third-round draft pick, Chukwuma Okorafor was viewed by most draft “experts” to be a project coming out of Western Michigan. The 6’6 320 pounder played sporadically until late November when he was called upon to start for an injured Feiler. Okorafor did not give up a QB hit beside the lone sack he gave up but he gave up four pressures. While not a stellar outing, he was not an embarrassment either. He will need to take his game to the next level to be considered for the right tackle job or swing tackle.
Jerald Hawkins had Steelers Nation salivating when Pittsburgh drafted him out of LSU in the fourth round in 2016. The 6’6 305 pounder was showing well in the preseason but a shoulder injury ended his season during the preseason. In 2017, Hawkins was merely depth while playing in five games with 48 snaps. Expectations were running high for Hawkins heading into 2018 only to be dashed again when he suffered a torn quad in OTAs. In early June, he was placed on injured reserve, again ending his season before it started. The upcoming season is a make or break season for Hawkins. Do fans put a lot of emphasis on reports he is struggling in training camp or do you want to see him in the preseason to make up your own minds? Either way, he has an uphill battle for playing time let alone making the roster.
Former USC Trojans Zach Banner was a surprise addition to the 53-man roster in 2018. The massive tackle at 6’8 and 360 pounds might have made the team but did not play an offensive or special team snap. Did he make enough progress to earn another spot in 2019?
The last offensive tackle who is seeing consistent time is Damian Prince. He is a player to monitor in the next week to see if he can bypass Hawkins for second string snaps. (If you are not familiar with him, here is a writeup I did on him.)
The backup interior linemen’s spot is B. J. Finney’s to lose. At $3.095 million, he already is an expensive backup. If you view him as a left guard, his cap hit is the 14th highest in the league, eclipsing starting Steelers left guard by $400,000. That is the price the Steelers put on Finney when they assigned him the second-round tender for 2019. Finney has proven his versatility with nine starts while playing in 43 games the past three seasons. Finney is an expensive insurance policy but the team may also see him as the future at left guard. Past effectiveness should mean he would be the first interior linemen off the bench in 2019.
After Finney, the waters get very muddied. Patrick Morris spent the 2018 season on the team’s practice squad and fans would think that he would be the top reserve in an injury occurred. Or is he with 2019 seventh-rounder Derwin Gray that player? Darkhorse J C Hassenauer spent seven weeks in 2018 on the Atlanta Falcons practice squad, did that time give him a leg up on the others? Fred Johnson and Garrett Brumbsfeld anything more than camp bodies?
Will there even be much attention paid to the right tackle battle or is there even a true battle that will go on? Is that battle between Feiler and Okorafor or could another stick their nose into the battle? How many offensive linemen will the Steelers keep?
LT — Alejandro Villanueva
LG — Ramon Foster
C — Maurkice Pouncey
RG — David DeCastro
RT — Matt Feiler
B.J. Finney — Backup C/G
Chukwuma Okorafor — Swing Tackle / Extra TE in jumbo packages
Zach Banner — Backup Tackle
Damian Prince — A way too early prediction, but Jerald Hawkins has been that bad in camp.
(23, I did not list Roosevelt Nix on offense as he will be listed elsewhere.)
Benny Snell Jr.
Player to be determined...