The Twitter account Blitzburgh recently conducted a poll asking fans who they thought would win the competition for the Steelers starting right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, a position battle that was created when head coach Mike Tomlin announced last week that incumbent starter Matt Feiler would begin training camp at left guard.
The results—67.6 percent to 32.4—were overwhelmingly in Banner’s favor. That just didn’t make sense. If this was a poll asking fans who they thought should be the Steelers offensive coordinator—Randy Fichtner or a bar of Dove soap—yeah, sure, I could see those numbers. But when it comes to any battle between Okorafor, a 2018 third-round pick out of Western Michigan, and Banner, a 2017 fourth-round pick out of USC who came to the Steelers in 2018 via the Colts and Browns, the voting probably should be closer to 50-50.
But then when I thought about it, I realized the numbers had more to do with Banner’s incredibly charming and likable personality than they had to do with what fans thought he could physically bring to the table vs. Okorafor in the battle for the right tackle spot.
It’s like in The Merger episode of The Office, where Andy Bernard says, “I’ll be the number two guy here in Scranton in six weeks. How? Name repetition, personality mirroring and never breaking off a handshake.” Later on in that episode, Michael Scott, Andy’s new boss, talks about how there’s just something really likable about that Andy Bernard fellow.
I can personally attest to the effect of Banner’s personality. Last Saturday morning, as I watched the BTSC exclusive interview Banner had with Dave Schofield, Bryan Anthony Davis and Michael Beck from last Friday, I felt myself smiling from ear-to-ear. Ever catch yourself smiling like that and not realizing it? Yeah, that was me, and if I would have voted in that aforementioned poll right then and there, there is no question who I would have picked to be Pittsburgh’s next starting right tackle.
Unfortunately for Banner, the battle for the Steelers right tackle spot won’t be based on personality—at least not on the charming parts of Banner’s that he shows off so well and so often.
The job will be won on merit.
So who has the inside track?
You could say Okorafor does, since he’s a guy the Steelers drafted and did so with the idea that he’d ultimately ascend to a starter at one of the tackle spots. In fact, the 6’6”, 320-pounder, who was born in Nigeria and whose family immigrated to the United States in 2010, has already started four games over his first two years. Last season, when Ramon Foster was injured, Okorafor was the man Tomlin chose to play right tackle when he decided to move Feiler over to left guard in a game against the Rams as a means of dealing with their very formidable interior defensive line led by one Aaron Donald.
But you could also make a strong case for Banner, who bounced between the Colts, the team that drafted him, and Browns for a season before winding up in Pittsburgh in 2018.
Banner grew in popularity last season when he began to draw applause from the fans at Heinz Field any time he was announced as an eligible receiver in jumbo packages. Perhaps it’s no surprise this came about after his waistline began to shrink, as he dropped from 420 pounds down to a trim for him 340. What really stood out to me during Banner’s interview with Dave and the guys was his revelation the techniques which have improved his play as an offensive lineman were taught to him after he came to the Steelers. That’s a credit to Mike Munchak, Banner’s first offensive line coach as a Steeler, and Shaun Sarrett, his current offensive line coach.
But it’s all mostly a credit to Banner who, at 6’8”, has an even bigger frame than the incredibly large Okorafor.
You have two guys with similar draft pedigrees and size. They’ve both put in the work to improve their play. They have fairly similar playing-time and experience if you count Banner’s many appearances as a crowd-pleasing jumbo tight end.
The question is, who will the coaches pick? If they were anything like the fans, they’d pick Banner. But have you seen coaches? They seem allergic to fun. Have you ever seen Tomlin “chuckle” at his or someone else’s joke at one of his press conferences? Talk about forced laughter.
Popularity won’t play a role in who wins the right tackle competition this summer.
It will be won based on performance.