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Pittsburgh Steelers Offseason Needs, Part 2: Offensive Line

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Did the Offensive Line really underperform in 2019? What would improve it?

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ No. 1 need is obvious: a guaranteed, blue chip, future Hall of Fame quarterback who will push Ben Roethlisberger for snaps, even in his rookie year. Picking at #18 in the second round that quarterback will be...[crickets]. Besides, who’s to say Roethlisberger won’t play for another three years? So let’s ignore that position and move on to the next tier of priorities. The most likely targets at 2:18 (49th overall) in the 2020 NFL Draft appear to be a star running back, a star wide receiver or an infusion into the offensive line. Today we look at the offensive line, but if you missed a day of the series, you can check them below:

Part 1: Running Backs

CURRENT OFFENSIVE LINE ROSTER (9 Players):

* C-1 Maurkice Pouncey. Age 30, FA 2022. Everyone talks about Pouncey retiring but they forget how young he really is. Centers often play into their mid-30’s. Pouncey could easily play 4-5 more years if he still has the passion.

* C-2 B.J. Finney. Age 28, Unrestricted Free Agent. B.J. Finney fell in the draft because he has 32” T-rex arms. It’s a limitation he’s clearly overcome! I believe Finney could have pushed Ramon Foster for the starting Left Guard position if he wasn’t more valuable as the vital safety net behind Pouncey. More discussion below.

* C-3 J.C. Hassenauer. Rookie, Exclusive Rights Free Agent. The Falcons brought him in as a promising C/G backup, who the Steelers poached when Pouncey got hurt. He was considered a prize UDFA but not much more than that, and at this point we just don’t know any more.

* OG-1a David DeCastro (Age 29, FA 2022). ‘Nuff said.

* OG-1b Ramon Foster (Age 33, FA 2021). More discussion below in both the cap description and the text.

o [OG-3 Matt Feiler]

o [OG-4 B.J. Finney]

* OT-1a Alejandro Villanueva (Age 31, FA 2021). A solid pass blocker but no great shakes in the run game. There’s only so much money a team can spend on any unit, even the OL, and the bottom line is that AV is a mid-level Left Tackle who gets paid appropriately.

* OT-1b Matt Feiler (Age 27, Restricted Free Agent). A solid, mid-level Right Tackle who would probably be even better at Guard. More discussion below.

* OT-3a and 3b Chuks Okorafor (Age 22, FA 2022) and OT-3b Zach Banner (Age 26, Restricted Free Agent). Both young men are viewed as competent backups who haven't been able to beat out Villanueva or Feiler. More discussion below.

CURRENT PRACTICE SQUAD/FUTURES PLAYERS

* OT-5 Derwin Gray. Futures Contract.

* OT-6 Christian DiLauro. Futures Contract.

NOTABLE CAP ISSUES

* Ramon Foster will have a cap hit of $5.75 Million if he is on the team in 2020. It would cost the Steelers a $1.575 Million dead money cap hit if he is released. The cap benefit would accordingly be $4.175 Million.

* B.J. Finney would be a starter on many teams in the league and is very likely to leave if someone offers him those snaps and the associated money. If he leaves they will need a replacement.

* Matt Feiler and Zach Banner are both RFA’s, which means they will almost certainly be back next year but will hit the market simultaneously with Villanueva if no long term deal gets signed. Feiler, in particular, may be a target for extension talks.

Someone needs to do a full scale film study of the 2019 offensive line because it is really hard to figure out what is going on in 2020, let alone what could improve it. The team’s offensive woes earned the OL a lot of criticism, but both Coach Tomlin and the knowledgeable pundits like Tunch & Wolf have said they didn’t deserve it. I am in the camp that views a good OL as the primary offensive engine, but even the best OL does not live in a vacuum. And there were a few little factors that might be more “explanation” than “excuse” for the OL’s 2019 failure to carry the rest of the offense. Consider:

  • The 2019 QB situation (sufficient in and of itself) because it killed the passing game, resulted in loaded boxes, and eliminated Ben’s ability to call the protections against whatever exotic blitzes the opponent cared to show and/or bring;
  • The loss of Antonio Brown’s on field production, which let opponents bring an extra man into the box and/or play many more varied and deceptive coverage schemes;
  • The injuries to Juju Smith-Schuster, who was simultaneously being asked to step up from cosmically great WR2 into Brown’s WR1 shoes;
  • The ineffective TE play, which removed the second- and third-tier answers to a loaded box (TE’s being both blockers and receivers);
  • The youth of James Washington despite his improvements, which removed the fourth-tier answer to a loaded box;
  • The rookie-level youth of Deiontae Johnson despite his many flashes, which removed the fifth-tier answer to a loaded box;
  • The injury to would-be free agent savior, Donte Moncrief, which got rid of tier six (arguably tier two but you get the point); and
  • The untimely death of beloved WR coach Darryl Drake.

[Gasp, gasp, gasp]. You can poo-poo at any one (or few) of those factors, but the combination added up to a perfect storm that allowed opposing defenses to blitz like mad, and to try out every zany stunt, game, and other trick in the book. 3rd-and-long is the hardest job for every offensive line. In 2019 the Steelers OL faced 3rd-and-long defenses on at least half the 1st-and-10’s, and almost every 2nd-and-5-or-more. It must have been a frickin’ nightmare.

And just to put the cherry on this Sundae/y Disaster, Pittsburgh built its running game around players who make five yards out of two, nine out of four, and 15-20 out of seven. They simply don’t have a pure power game to make three yards out of zero, or a lightning-in-the-bottle star who can hit home runs off little screens and outlet passes.

The other criticism fans tend to level has to do with age. That is just as unfair. RB’s get old in their late 20’s. WR’s and explosive pass rushers tend to hit the wall around 30. The big boys on the OL and DL typically last into their mid-30’s, just as good QB’s now last toward 40. The only Steeler lineman who’s really starting to gray is Ramon Foster.

Chips on the table: I have a soft spot for the blue collar, locker room types who put the “T” in Team. I’m under no illusions. “Ramon Foster the Starter” has never been a star on the field, nor even close to a star. But “Ramon Foster the Steeler” has been all but unequaled during his long tenure and deserves a lot of credit for quietly raising all boats. Consider these quotes from that wonderful article on the locker room solidarity that held the 2019 Steelers together:

Guard Ramon Foster has forever cast a Buddha-like presence in this locker room. The 11-year vet is a wise, honest, open book to all...

When Tomlin spotted one young player getting onto the team plane in a flashy jacket more fit for a nightclub, instead of a suit and tie, he nodded to Foster and said, “Mone, let him know.” Foster did. Snapping his fingers, Foster says that player got in line immediately.

That sort of stuff matters. And for the record I don’t believe for a second that Ramon Foster was a true “weak link” for all these years; just the weakest link when compared to the likes of Pouncey and DeCastro. He wasn’t a star, but he didn’t suck. Nevertheless, 2020 looks a lot like it’s going to be the gold watch and move on moment for our beloved Big Ragu. The cap matters; his play really is starting to decline; and the 2019 line did not play well enough to justify extra protection in the name of chemistry and continuity.

So… Assume that Foster is a cap casualty. What happens next? B.J. Finney plays Guard at just a slightly lower level than he plays Center, but teams hate to expose their backup Center and he is ‘only’ an average starter at his best position. Most likely, Matt Feiler would move inside (where he probably belongs), leaving Chuks and Banner to compete for the Right Tackle snaps

That double move would not be a disaster. Chuks did well as a rookie. Many people expected to take over from Marcus Gilbert and said he “must have regressed” in his sophomore year when that didn’t happen. That is faulty logic. It’s much more likely that Feiler stepped up to beat him out. As for Banner, his issue is and always has been weight. During the last offseason this man lost 80 pounds! That isn’t a typo. This supreme act of discipline restored a lot of missing mobility and earned him snaps as an Elephant TE all year long. If he can maintain that discipline, and come back with his body tuned up instead of just slimmer, who knows what he could be? Zach Banner In good shape is a solid peer in the competition with Chuks Okorafor. There is little reason to expect any real decline in overall play as the current OL shuffles to absorb the presumed loss of the longtime LG.

But would these moves make the team affirmatively better? Maaaaybe... I’d give 3:1 odds that Feiler turns out to be a better 2020 Guard than Foster was in 2019, and 50/50 odds that the winning dog of Chuks v. Banner will mature into the 2020 peer of Feiler at Right Tackle. That would indeed be a marginal improvement, especially with Ben coming back and the WR corps progressing. But consider what this unit would look like with a star Right Tackle in the mix instead of a solid one! Or even a young Guard good enough to push Feiler back outside. The OL could transform from a genuine asset into a powerhouse generator of offensive might. And it would definitely help with the looming 2021 cap crunch as so many players come into contract years together.

All of which means that Foster’s departure would yield a pure BPA situation from the draftnik’s point of view. A steal at Tackle would be fantastic; a steal at Guard would be just as fantastic; and filling the pipeline later on would be quite acceptable. But some sort of OL pick will be required, at some point in the draft. Less so if Derwin Gray has been secretly blowing the coaches away in practice, but we’ve hear nothing yay or nay on that possibility.

Next up: what happens if B.J. Finney leaves too? This is just as likely and maybe a little scarier because Pouncey has a history of missing games. Teams protect their backup Centers precisely because weakness at that position is extremely hard to cover. Can Hassenauer do the job? We simply don’t know. But if Finney leaves the team will, at the very least, need to bring in someone who can compete for the backup position – and ideally someone who can compete for Guard snaps if he doesn’t succeed at Center. As noted above, a good Guard would help this team a lot by competing with Chuks and Banner to see where Feiler ends up.

For that matter, a good C/G pick would free Finney up to take the LG position, push Feiler back outside, etc. Again, it is a question of BPA. If Finney leaves and Foster stays, the team needs a backup Center to compete with Hassenauer. If Foster leaves and Finney stays, the team can use an offensive lineman at any position, but can afford to go pure BPA. And if both Foster and Finney leave, the team will have an actual need for OL depth, can still afford to go BPA at any position, but will have to put a finger on the scale in favor of a high quality C/G.

[Whew]! My brain hurts. But at least one thing has now become clear. The Steelers are not in desperation mode on the Offensive Line. They can afford to go BPA, will benefit most from going BPA, and won’t face disaster if the best players turn out to be in some other position group. So let’s have a look at what the OL draft options are going to be in the 2-4 range. It turns out they are pretty darned good, particularly at Tackle.

What follows are some very, very initial grades and descriptions of the OL class. I want to emphasize that these are PRELIMINARY AND FOR THE SAKE OF DISCUSSION. I have watched no film of these players and only a game or two in which some of them appeared. Almost all the descriptions are summaries of what I found with a quick scan of the Internet. Please consider yourselves invited – actively requested – to make corrections and suggestions in the Comments, and to provide links that we can add to the few I’ve included.

It should also be noted that, unlike RB, the Steelers may well be interested in developmental prospects. The O-Line part of our Big Board will accordingly end up being very, very deep. This list includes only those with a Round 1-3 grade for the Tackles (there are a ton of them!) and Round 1-4 grades for the Centers and Guards. Feel free to mention any missing names that you’d put into either of those categories.

POTENTIAL CENTERS

1:20 – C/G Tyler Biadasz, Wisconsin. (RS Junior). 6’3”, 321 lbs. Ain’t Gonna Happen. Name a better factory for linemen than Wisconsin. [Crickets]. Name the leader of the Wisconsin OL. You got it. A marvelous technician who’s only flaw is the lack of shining athletic brilliance in any one area. He could probably start at Guard as well as he could at Center.

1:20 – C/G Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma. (RS Sophomore). 6’5”, 316 lbs. Mean, nasty, smart, strong, young, and backed up by a solid wrestling background. Does that cover every base the Steelers look for, short of brilliant mobility to pull at the level of a Pouncey or Dermontti Dawson? Indeed it does. He’s another “Ain’t Gonna Happen” prospect who could probably start at Guard as well as he could at Center.

2:24 – C Nick Harris, Washington. (Senior). 6’1”, 302 lbs. Comes to the NFL with a description that basically matches where B.J. Finney is as a multiyear veteran. Smart, savvy, strong, good mover, limited only by length and overall size, etc. But he will be a rookie with all the reasonable hopes that he might grow into more than that. Suited better to be a Center but talented enough to back up at Guard as well.

3:12 – C/G Darryl Williams, Mississippi State. (RS Senior). 6’3”, 310 lbs. Described as a solid prospect who does everything well but needs to grow into NFL strength. His floor (after a year of professional strength training) looks like B.J. Finney Mark II, which is not at all bad regardless of whether Finney stays or goes.

4:01 – C/G Lloyd Cushenberry III, LSU. (RS Junior). 6’4”, 315 lbs. He’s got all the raw physical talent you want but lacks pro-level technique in various ways, and questions exist about his ability to call protections at an NFL level. Redshirt year will be required.

4:16 – C/G Jake Hanson, Oregon. (RS Senior). 6’5”, 295 lbs. Think of the stereotypical coach’s son but playing at Center. What he lacks is the model size and strength to go with his solid technique and smarts.

PURE GUARDS

4:01 – G Solomon Kindley, Georgia. (RS Junior). 6’4”, 336 lbs. A road grader who pass blocks well and plays for a traditionally run-first program.

4:16 – G Shane Lemieux, Oregon. (RS Senior). 6’4”, 316 lbs. He moves irresistibly in one direction – forward. Ideal if the Steelers want a power player to dig opponents out while DeCastro handles the pulling. The wrong guy if you want to share the pulling duties.

TACKLE/GUARDS

0:00 – OT/G Andrew Thomas, Georgia. (Junior). 6’5”, 320 lbs. Top 10-15 talent. Ain’t Gonna Happen.

0:00 – OT/G Jedrick Wills, Alabama. (Junior). 6’5”, 320 lbs. Top 10-15 talent. Ain’t Gonna Happen.

0:00 – OT/G Tristan Wirfs, Iowa. (Junior). 6’5”, 322 lbs. Top 10-15 talent. Ain’t Gonna Happen.

RETURNING TO SCHOOL. 1:25 – OT/G Alex Leatherwood, Alabama. (Junior). 6’6”, 310 lbs. Round 1 talent with superb athleticism but technical flaws that will drop him toward the back of Round 1 in this loaded class. Ain’t Gonna Happen in the middle of Round 2.

2:12 – OT/G Mekhi Becton, Louisville. (Junior). 6’7”, 369 lbs. A gigantic grizzly bear of a Right Tackle with the ability to move inside, where he should be a dominant Guard if the height does not get in his way. Becton also has the length but might lack the feet to be on the blindside. Time will tell. The technical knock is that he’s shown signs of hesitation that probably result from insecurities about basic technique. That, and the physical maturity to move from a college behemoth to an NFL athlete, are among the easiest “fixes” for OL prospects. He might not splash in his rookie year but watch out for what happens next!

2:12 – G/T Trey Smith, Tennessee. (Junior). 6’6”, 325 lbs. This grade is wrong but I have no way to guess in which direction! Forget 2:18; Trey Smith would be great value a full round higher than that if there was no medical red flag. But there is. Twice (I believe) he has been diagnosed with blood clots in the lungs. It is a problem that could theoretically be fatal if one broke free and traveled up to the brain. Imagine someone standing up from a play, getting a confused look in his eye, and then dropping down forever... Brrrr. That said, the condition vanished both times just as mysteriously as it managed to show up, and a battery of ultra-cautious doctors cleared him to play. No one knows why the problem happened in the first place. No one can predict whether it will recur. You tell me how big a discount that requires.

Every other thing you look at is solid gold. Trey Smith is a downright monstrous Guard who is generally accounted as the best run blocker in the class, and has both the mobility and length to flex out toward Right Tackle. A foundational building block for any offensive line. But that’s not all! On top of all that, “Trey Smith is a good book waiting to be written, an inspirational movie to be made.” Heck, he is one of the three finalists for the Jason Witten Man of the Year Award! So he is a locker room foundation piece as well as one on the O-Line. Unless, of course, ... you know.

2:24 – OT/G Lucas Niang, TCU. (Senior). 6’7”, 328 lbs. Another classic Right Tackle prospect with the ability to be a dominant Guard if he moves inside. Walter Football cites rumors concerning work ethic but that isn’t the most reliable source.

3:01 – G/OT Hakeem Adeniji, Kansas. (Senior). 6’4”, 310 lbs. Played OT in college and has the mobility to do it in the pros too, but might have to become a pulling Guard because he’d be on the smaller side for modern Tackles. No real negatives except a need to improve just a bit across the board.

3:24 – OT/G Jack Driscoll, Auburn. (RS Senior). 6’5”, 294 lbs. He started at U. Mass, transferred to the SEC based on his development, and then won the Right Tackle job for a very good program. And did okay there. But he is, nevertheless, severely undersized for the NFL and sort of a square peg who’s hard to fit in any particular hole. One can speculate about a different position… but one has to speculate.

PURE TACKLES

2:12 – OT Austin Jackson, USC. (Junior). 6’6”, 310 lbs. Round 1 feet and length, but will need a redshirt year to build his strength and ground his technique. Might have issues moving inside to Guard.

2:24 – OT Prince Tega Wanogho, Auburn. (RS Senior). 6’7”, 305 lbs. A second tier blind side protector who could develop into a shut down guy if everything goes just right. Long, smooth, and mobile but not as straight up powerful as the Right Tackle prospects, and probably unsuited to move inside. A higher pedigree version of Chuks Okorafor?

2:24 – OT Trey Adams, Washington. (Senior). 6’8”, 314 lbs. A Round 1 talent with prototypical length, excellent strength that solves any leverage issues, and enough mobility to project as a solid NFL starter at either Tackle spot with upside if he can learn enough technique to handle pure speed rushers. Probably not a Guard simply because he is so long. The issue, once again, is health. As discussed in this article, Adams has tenaciously fought back to overcome both a 2017 ACL tear and a 2018 disc surgery. If the team doctors say “go for it,” don’t be surprised if the Steelers do just that.

RETURNING TO SCHOOL 3:01 - OT Samuel Cosmi, Texas. (RS Sophomore).

3:24 – OT Josh Jones, Houston. (RS Senior). 6’7”, 310 lbs. A toolsy prospect with good length, experience, and athleticism. But he’s also never “arrived” in a dominating way and has numerous technical problems his NFL coach will have to address. There is real gold in them thar hills but the team that drafts him will have some digging and refining to do before it’s ready for the display case.

For those less familiar with the offseason discussions than the rest of us, the annual BTSC Big Boards are organized by Highest Value (“HV#”) to the Steelers. Great players for other teams get downgraded here, as do positions where Pittsburgh has limited “want.” An HV of 1:25 means the player is a reach for the Steelers at any point before Pick # 25 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 late in Round 2 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, not the one where a player is expected to go; but grades are never pushed up just because of need. Players with the same HV# are organized alphabetically.

Rounds are subdivided as follows:

  • 1st Round grades: 1:01, 1:05, 1:10, 1:15, 1:20, or 1:25.
  • 2nd & 3rd Round grades: Early (#:01), Mid (#:12), or Late (#:24).
  • 4th to 7th Round grades: Early (#:01) or Late (#:16).