If this rather eventful off season for the Steelers has taught us anything it is the fact that wonders never cease, and we as Steelers fans should learn to expect the unexpected. Nobody could have predicted JuJu Smith-Schuster choosing loyalty and legacy over money by returning to Pittsburgh in a display of wisdom that belies his youthful age. Or when Tyson Alualu up and agreed to a contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars; the place where his NFL career began in rather disappointing fashion, only to change his mind after 10 days of COVID quarantine gave him ample time to come to his senses.
One of the biggest surprises this off season for yours truly was a statement revealed by none other than Steelers T Zach Banner. It was common knowledge all along that the Steelers wanted URFA Banner back, and Banner wanted to come back. The Steelers had a busy couple of weeks to begin free agency so they focused their attention on other priorities as they considered Banner's return a sure thing.
Banner waited patiently, but he decided to do something totally out of character while he waited. Banner is a gregarious young man, never shy about sharing his opinion about social issues according to his personal beliefs. He is both entertaining and ever present on social media platforms as he engages with the fanbase. However, the loquacious Banner decided to shutdown his social media until he signed a new contract with the Steelers. That was a surprise, but not the biggest surprise about Banner I have heard recently.
That distinction would be a statement that Banner says HC Mike Tomlin made to him in his exit interview at the conclusion of last season. According to Banner, Tomlin told him that not only was he in the Steelers plans to rebuild their offensive line in an concerted effort to improve their league worst rushing attack, but that he would be competing for the opportunity to start at left tackle.
The first time I read that statement I immediately thought it was a typo. I was sure that the statement should have been that he was going to have a shot of starting at right tackle. I was so certain of it I didn't give it a second thought. Then he reiterated that statement in another interview not long after officially signing his new contract. Not only was I surprised by the statement, but I am honestly still confused and befuddled today.
Zach Banner has shown me nothing thus far in his professional career that suggest he can play left tackle at the NFL level. He has excellent length, but lacks the balance and mobility of a left tackle. His massive girth makes him an excellent candidate at right tackle, where his strength and power should help bolster the Steelers aforementioned anemic running game. On the right side, he won't be tasked with protecting his aging future HOF QB's blindside from insanely quick pass rushing specialists like Cleveland Browns DE Myles Garrett. Banner has prototypical size and skills for right tackle, not so much for left tackle.
However, at least on paper, Chukwuma Okorafor is the dictionary definition of a left tackle. Blessed with excellent height and extremely long arms, Okorafor is light on his feet with impressive mobility. At this point of his development, he handles speed better than he does pure power. He slides and shuffles gracefully, but can easily be knocked off balance when trying to absorb an opponent's bull rush. This happened with greater frequency as the season progressed last year.
So why am I so confident that Okorafor will be successful at left tackle this season for the Pittsburgh Steelers? There are multiple reasons why at this point.
As mentioned earlier, I believe that Okorafor was playing out of position last season at right tackle. He was drafted in the 2018 NFL Draft in the third round out of Western Michigan by the Steelers to play left tackle eventually. This was confirmed after the draft by none other than Kevin Colbert. As I pointed out earlier, his skill set and physical dimensions are ideal for left tackle.
Secondly, he was much more effective playing next to powerful rookie G Kevin Dotson early in the season. They seemed to communicate well and formed a strong tandem on the right side. Okorafor never seemed as comfortable playing alongside David Decastro, a far more finesse type player. If Dotson takes over as the starter at LG next season as expected, then the two would be paired up together once again. That bodes well for both young men.
Lastly, I want to point out Okorafor's age at the moment. He won't turn 24 years young until early in training camp, even though he will be entering his fourth year in the league. I remember thinking the first time I saw him in action that he didn't appear ready for NFL level competition. He looked tentative and unsure, like a junior varsity player making the jump to varsity. In his case he was, not only in skill level and experience, but in actual age. This gives me real hope that he still has plenty of room for improvement, not just in maturity but with his functional playing strength also.
My ideal offensive line has strength and stability in the interior positions, with length and athleticism at the tackle positions. Due to advancing age, injuries, and less than ideal personnel decisions by the coaching staff; last season's Steelers line failed to meet those standards and deteriorated rapidly. Outside of Kevin Dotson the offensive line was never able to achieve any semblance of push or surge. The Steelers hierarchy recognized the problem and are in the process of trying to rectify the situation.
All off season Steelers faithful have lamented the biggest areas of need in improving the running game are running back, center, and either tackle spot. I would argue that the first two positions listed are far more needed at the moment.
Who knows what the Steelers plans are at left tackle? Maybe they really are going to give Banner a shot there in training camp. I don't expect that experiment to be successful, but what would it hurt. Training camp is a time for growth and experimentation. Throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks. For what it's worth, there is a recent picture of Banner floating around social media showing him in the best shape of his career. He appears to be taking his rehab and a possible shot at left tackle very seriously.
I still believe that Chukwuma Okorafor will be the Steelers left tackle when the season starts, and that he is more than capable of being successful in that endeavor. All I am asking is give the guy a chance and have a little faith. After all, he is just a kid and could use some support from the Steelers faithful.