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The Steelers need to add some pedigree to the offensive line

With the Steelers needing to add players on the offensive line, the capital to do so should be significant.

Detroit Lions v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers need to get better along the offensive line in 2022.

It’s not really an earth shattering statement. Most who watched the Steelers realized they struggled in both their run and pass blocking last season. In fact, the Steelers offensive line has been trending in the wrong direction for the last several years. After being a group which was often in discussions as one of the best in the league, the Steelers have found themselves trending towards the bottom, rather than the top.

What is the difference with the Steelers offensive line in recent years, particularly in 2021? I was recently asked to try to make a determination as to how much the offensive line coach plays in the Steelers overall rankings. In doing so, I actually found some interesting information which sheds light on the Steelers’ 2021 season.

Going all the way back to 2007, I looked at where the Steelers offensive line ranked from various outlets. It wasn’t like a pure statistical evaluation, as it is difficult to do so with the offensive line, but more subjective on how various places felt the Steelers were performing. After looking at the coaching changes and other things, it appeared the biggest factor was the draft capital invested across the line.

Whether a player was a high draft pick of the Steelers, or of another franchise who came to Pittsburgh in free agency, seeing where players were taken in the draft to help fill the five offensive line positions was quite telling. As we know, draft pedigree does not mean everything when it comes to an NFL player. The Steelers have found plenty of ‘diamond in the rough’ players on the offensive line, having as many as three undrafted players a starters any given time. But expecting to be able to fill the line completely with these types of players year after year could end up as a disaster.

The opposite of having all players drafted in the first or second round making up the entire offensive line is difficult to do as well. The best-case scenario, from a numerical standpoint, is to have a mix of high pedigree draft players with others who have been developed into starters.

Going back to the 2007 season, the Steelers offensive line was around the middle of the pack in the NFL. The Steelers had two former first-round picks at starting positions in Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons along with second-round pick Marvel Smith. It was following 2007 where the Steelers began to see a slide in their offensive line play, but the highest drafted player for the next two seasons was former third-round draft pick Max Starks. After the Steelers had invested the draft capital in the offensive line, they had a gap of two seasons of just trying to fill in with what they had. Since 2000, the Steelers had only selected two offensive linemen in the first two rounds of the draft, and 2007 was the last year both players were starters for the season.

In 2010 the Steelers went back to using either first or second-round draft picks on the offensive line when they selected Maurkice Pouncey out of Florida. Being a rookie, the only other player with first or second-round draft pedigree was Flozell Adams, who came to Pittsburgh for one year after 12 seasons in Dallas. While the Steelers were still in the bottom of the league in terms of offensive line, this was where the turnaround began.

In 2011 the Steelers drafted tackle Marcus Gilbert in the second round, like Pouncey out of Florida, as they begin to invest more draft capital in the line. In 2012, the Steelers used their top two draft picks in David DeCastro and Mike Adams to help bring their offensive line back to the level it needed to be. It was a bit of a bumpy ride that season as DeCastro was injured and only appeared in three games, while Marcus Gilbert went down in Week 5 with Mike Adams filling in for part of the season. The Steelers had a young offensive line, but they were improving.

2013 saw the Steelers back to the middle of the NFL in the rankings despite Pouncey only playing eight snaps before being lost to injury. DeCastro and Gilbert were holding down the right side of the line with high draft pedigree, and the Steelers found some great play on the left from undrafted Ramon Foster and seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum.

Although Mike Adams never lived up to his draft status, and was out of Pittsburgh after 2014, the Steelers rode the wave of Pouncey, DeCastro, and Gilbert for several seasons until injuries hampered Gilbert’s 2017 and 2018 seasons. Still, the Steelers were towards the top of the NFL by those years as their high-pedigree players continued to contribute to the offensive line.

So what happened in recent years? Why have the Steelers seen a sudden drop off in their play? Was it really about the greatness of Mike Munchak? Honestly, the Steelers high-pedigree players were reaching the end of their careers and the Steelers hadn’t invested a first or second-round draft pick at the position group since 2012. Additionally, the Steelers did not add any free agents anywhere close to the level of the players they had added in the draft. The Steelers were left with aging first-round picks alongside late-round picks and undrafted players who they had tried to develop.

This history lesson is leading up to the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line. When David DeCastro was unable to play, and subsequently released over the summer last year, the team’s pedigree on the offensive line was gone. They made a patchwork move of signing Trai Turner in June, and, even though he was a third-round draft pick in 2014, he did have five Pro Bowl seasons in Carolina. Looking at the draft position of the Steelers’ five starters is really all fans need to see to know when wondering why the Steelers aren’t getting the production from the line they did four or five seasons ago.

To my surprise, the highest drafted player on the Steelers offensive line in 2021 was third-round draft pick Kendrick Green, who was drafted 87th overall. The next highest drafted player who appeared in a game for the Steelers was Chaz Green, who was drafted in the third round in the 91st position in 2015 by the Dallas Cowboys. But Chaz Green was merely a practice squad call-up to give the Steelers enough linemen and only played four special team snaps all season. Picked one spot later in the draft at 92nd was both Trai Turner and Chuks Okorafor, obviously not in the same year. The other members of the Steelers offensive line were made up of fourth-round picks Kevin Dotson, Dan Moore Jr., and Zach Banner in a reserve role. Joe Haeg is a former fifth-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts and filled in for the Steelers as well. Every other player who saw playing time for the Steelers offensive line in 2021 had gone undrafted.

So do the Steelers necessarily have to go out and use their draft picks in the first or second round on the offensive line in 2022? The Steelers never have to do anything, but it would be unwise to not reinvest in the position group. But much like the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers, throwing a first and/or second-round draft pick at the offensive line could still take a couple seasons to pay off. In order to help speed up the process, the Steelers would also be well off adding a high pedigree offensive lineman, whether that pedigree comes from draft position or experience.

In the late 2000s, the Steelers saw how quickly things can fall apart on the offensive line when they weren’t reinvesting the draft capital at the position. While it still might be a little too late to completely turn around the offensive line for 2022, if using only the draft, the Steelers should recognize they have not added draft picks from the first or second round in 12 seasons. Doing so sooner, rather than later, will ultimately help get the line headed in the right direction.