If you asked the Steelers front office, the people that cover the team or their fans what position group is the most important this offseason I expect you would get the same answer from all of them. You might even get a few of the national sports media to agree. It’s the offensive line.
In 2020 the Steelers started the season rolling on offense. Even with Ben Roethlisberger showing a bit of rust and trying to build chemistry with his receivers on the fly, the Steelers were averaging 30 points a game with a top ten rushing attack. That all came crashing down, partly because teams figured out the patchwork scheme the Steelers had thrown together over an abbreviated offseason, but also because of injuries on the offensive line.
Maurkice Pouncey has retired, Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler and Zach Banner are free agents. If you go back to week 1 of the 2020 season, the starting lineup of Villanueva, Feiler, Pouncey, Stefan Wisniewski and Zach Banner are all not currently Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers will need to build an offensive line this offseason, let’s look at what pieces remain.
The Remnants of 2020
J.C. Hassenauer: Hassenauer played 305 snaps in 2020, mostly at center. He started the season as the third center behind Maurkice Pouncey and Stefan Wisniewski, but Wisniewski went on injured reserve and was released, making him the primary backup. The games he played significant snaps were the Steelers worst offensive games, and it was especially bad when injuries forced Hassenauer to play guard. Hassenauer resigned with the Steelers as an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, and he will return as a super cheap depth center. But for right now, he’s the only center on the roster.
David DeCastro: DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey were the backbone of the Steelers offensive line resurgence in 2014. When healthy, they were still a great combo in 2020. Health was a problem. DeCastro faced several injuries in 2020, missing weeks 1 and 2 of the season, then an injury against Philadelphia cost him most of that game and the Steelers week 6 game. He played 102 of the Steelers first 350 offensive snaps. DeCastro would only miss a handful of snaps after that, but he was visibly not the same player for most of the rest of the season.
DeCastro is the only Steelers returning lineman that has began an NFL season as a starter.
Kevin Dotson: Dotson was a steal in the 4th round, and showed his value early and often in the Steelers season. He will be a starter in 2021, but there are some holes in his game that need to be fixed, most notably his lack of comfort and technical proficiency in outside zone runs. He’s a beast in inside zone run schemes and gap schemes and gave up one pressure in over 200 pass protection snaps.
DeCastro and Dotson are the foundations of the Steelers line heading into free agency.
Chukwuma Okorafor: A third round pick in 2018, Okorafor has developed every year, and when he stepped in for Zach Banner at the end of the first game he showed he was up to the challenge. Okorafor is a very solid pass blocker who is okay in run blocking. Sports Info Solutions credits Okorafor with 4 sacks allowed off 9 blown blocks in his 635 pass blocking snaps. He isn’t a Pro-Bowl level player, but he’s solid.
More than that, he’s the only tackle on the roster right now that has played snaps for the Steelers.
The Steelers currently have only 4 players that played snaps on their offensive line in 2020.
Aviante Collins: Collins will turn 28 in April, and in his four year career since going undrafted out of TCU he has played 77 offensive snaps, all for the Minnesota Vikings. His practice squad contract with the Vikings expired in January and the Steelers signed him to a futures contract.
Anthony Coyle: Coyle went undrafted in 2018, we has been on rosters for the Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons without playing a snap for any of them. He joined the XFL and was a starter at guard for the New York Guardians. The Steelers signed him after the XFL broke up. In 2020 Coyle was a practice squad call-up multiple times, and was protected on the practice squad multiple times.
Jarron Jones: Jones played defensive line for Notre Dame, but after going undrafted in 2017 he was converted to an offensive lineman. He bounced around the NFL before being a first round pick in the XFL, where he played with Anthony Coyle on the Guardians. Jones was on the Steelers practice squad all season and was then signed to a futures contract.
John Leglue: Leglue started at least 9 games each at center, guard and tackle in college where he also served as a long snapper. Has been in camp or on roster for the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers. His versatility is a benefit in training camp and on the practice squad, but so far he hasn’t made it onto the field.
Brandon Walton: A team mate of James Pierre at Florida Atlantic University, Walton played tackle on both sides of the line in college. He was signed by the Bills after going undrafted in 2020, and the Steelers picked him up in September after a tryout.
As you can see, the Steelers don’t have an offensive line right now. They are currently last in salary cap spending on offensive lineman and only two of their lineman can be confidently penciled in as starters.
The Canada Effect
Before getting into the options to add to the offensive line, it is important to note that Matt Canada is the new offensive coordinator and Kevin Colbert has stated that Canada’s offense has changed how they evaluate players.
K.T. Smith did a fabulous breakdown on Matt Canada’s offense and what it means for the offensive line that is a must-read heading into this offseason.
To sum it up very briefly, Matt Canada uses a lot of gap/power scheme and outside zone run schemes. The Steelers have been a heavy inside zone team since Mike Munchak came to Pittsburgh. The Steelers have valued athletic lineman for years, because of their ability to pull. In an outside zone scheme athleticism is even more important, and players will need to be able to block while moving laterally.
With the opportunity to re-build the line at so many positions, it makes sense to consider these traits and skills when we look at potential signings.
Free Agent Options
Corey Lindsey: Lindsey is the premier center on the market right now, and would be a fantastic addition to the Steelers line. He fits the profile the Steelers are looking for, as he comes from an outside zone heavy offense in Green Bay.
Nick Martin: Martin was the center for the Houston Texans, an offense that ran heavily out of shotgun, and did so with both inside zone and gap/power schemes. That is essentially the same run scheme the Steelers used in 2020. Martin is projected to be cheaper than Lindsey.
B.J. Finney: Finney is likely to be cheap, but he also isn’t a starter. His familiarity with the Steelers organization, ability to play guard and center and experience snapping to Ben Roethlisberger holds value.
Zach Banner: Banner is not (at the time I am writing) on the Steelers roster. His remarks about his exit interview, as well as other vague hints he has left on social media all point to him returning to the Steelers, where he won the starting right tackle job in 2020. Banner makes incredible sense for the Steelers to sign, as he’s a player they view as starter capable who won’t be expensive.
Matt Feiler: Matt Feiler was a solid but not great starter at left guard in 2020, but he was a very good right tackle the year before. If the Steelers decide to bring back Feiler and Banner it would give them three starting caliber tackles without a lot of investment. Feiler also gives versatility to slide inside in a pinch.
As few players as the Steelers have signed, with Zach Banner expected to return to the team, they are only a signing or two away from being in very solid shape.
I will defer here to K.T. Smith’s excellent breakdown of college prospects from his post, which covers the same players I would cover here, at greater depth than I put into these posts. Go check it out, I agree with almost all of his thoughts on perspective lineman in the draft.
There is a lot of anticipation for an offensive tackle in round 1 of the 2021 draft, but as always, it is important to remember that the Steelers fill holes in free agency, most often from within, and draft to improve the roster.
The Steelers will enter the draft having added a center and at least one tackle they are okay starting in the regular season.