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State of the Steelers Offensive Line: Pre-draft edition

Looking at all the players currently on the Steelers offensive line.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Steelers transitioned away from a veteran offensive line group after the 2020 season, with retirements and expiring contracts breaking up a group which had played together for years. The 2021 offensive line had three players who had never played for the Steelers, two of which were rookies, and two players who had only started as injury replacements. That’s a big change from the level of continuity the original starters in 2020 had. The Steelers line struggled, and while it showed signs of real improvement for the weeks before Kevin Dotson’s injury, the Steelers line ended the season as one of the weaker lines in the NFL.

This offseason the organization added some new faces, and brought back some key ones from last season. As we approach the 2022 NFL Draft, let us take a look at the state of the roster and see what the Steelers have, and where opportunities exist for adding more talent. I’ll break them down into a few categories, we’ll start with the biggest names.

The Locks

Chukwuma Okorafor

Okorafor is the Steelers offensive lineman with the most play time for the Steelers under his belt with 35 starts. Okorafor has plenty of on-field experience, starting over half the games the Steelers have played since he was drafted in 2018, but Okorafor enters the 2022 season with a big contract, and little competition for the starting job. With a 10+ million a year contract I have to assume the Steelers see Okorafor as the Starter, and won’t be going into camp with an open competition. It is Okorafor’s job to lose, and even if he somehow fails to hold onto a starting tackle job, he’ll be on the team. A fresh contract puts him in the uncuttable category as someone it would cost more to cut than keep.

Okorafor brings experience starting, and solid, not good or bad results. He isn’t an anchor for the line, but he’s a known commodity that has been very durable for the Steelers so far.

James Daniels

Daniels has four years of NFL experience and 48 starts for the Chicago Bears, he’s an experienced lineman even though he’ll only be 25 years old for the 2022 season. Daniels has played at least eight games at all of the interior line positions, but really hit his stride in 2021 when the Bears moved him to right guard and left him there all season.

While Daniels has experience at center, and played that position in college, it would be strange for the Steelers to sign him after he had his best season playing right guard, and move him to center, where he only has 8 games played. Daniels is most likely going to be the Steelers right guard, a position the Steelers lost their starter, and Daniels best spot on the line.

That’s it for locks. The two guys who signed the big contracts are penciled in as starters, after these two there are players facing various levels of competition.

Near Locks

Kevin Dotson

Dotson was arguably the Steelers best offensive lineman when he was playing the last two seasons. He’s a physically dominant people mover at guard. He’s not as strong moving laterally or in more complex schemes, but when he is tasked with blocking the man across from him he rarely loses. Dotson’s at his best on combo blocks, he’s a fantastic inside zone blocker and a key factor in the run game across the board.

The question on Dotson is if he can improve the rest of his game and become the lineman the Steelers want him to be, instead of the player who consistently looks good on film, and yet seems to always be in the doghouse with his coaches.

Dan Moore Jr.

Moore Jr. wasn’t supposed to start in 2021, but with Zach Banner missing the season, he ended up with the left tackle job. He wasn’t great in that role, but showed some promise. With no competition brought in for the position, he seems to be locked into place to be the starter again. The Steelers new offensive line coach seems like a great fit with Moore Jr., and if the Steelers focus more on the run game with Ben Roethlisberger gone, Dan Moore Jr. will be a key part of the Steelers line.

Both Dan Moore Jr. and Kevin Dotson have negatives which argue for an upgrade at the position, but it bears remembering how dominant the left side of the Steelers line was for a series of weeks when Dotson and Moore Jr. were getting accustomed to each other. I can’t imagine the Steelers looking at that film and making either spot a priority for a replacement.

In the Mix to Start

Mason Cole

Cole, like Okorafor, has a lot of starts in the NFL without being a player teams have looked to as a locked in starter. While Okorafor gets ranked as a lock with his contract and the lack of competition, Mason Cole’s contract and history places him in the category of a fantastic interior line backup capable of playing center or guard in a pinch. Cole has a lot of experience playing center in a zone heavy run game, and has graded highly as a run blocker. His best chance to start is at center, and that puts him in direct competition with the next player on this list.

Kendrick Green

Green was pegged to start as a rookie in Week 1. He had a lot of ups and downs, but like Dan Moore Jr. he seemed to be finding some comfort and success before Kevin Dotson’s injury. Green’s injury saw J.C. Hassenauer take his place, and though Green returned to the roster, he didn’t get his job back.

Before the 2021 season there was concern Green would need a season to get accustomed to the NFL, and while he didn’t get that, there is hope that his experience and a full NFL offseason will do wonders to elevate his game. It bears mention how J.C. Hassenauer took over the center job from Green, and in 2020 Hassenauer was terrible when he played as a rookie. A similar level of growth from Green heading into his second season would give the Steelers a quality starting center. The Steelers have stated they are open to moving Green to guard, but for 2022 that would likely be as a backup to all the interior spots as it would be a hard road to unseat Daniels or Dotson.

Quality Depth

J.C. Hassenauer

The starter at center to end both the 2020 and 2021 regular seasons, Hassenauer showed serious improvement between his first and second season, and could be in the mix to win the starting job with another season of improvement, but the addition of Mason Cole points to the Steelers wanting more than Hassenauer can offer as a starter right now. He’s a good backup, and it is good to know he can hold his own if needed for spot play.

Joe Haeg

Haeg joined the Steelers in 2021 after injuries saw him start and play well for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on their 2020 Super Bowl run. He only started two games for the Steelers, but played the most snaps he had played in a season since 2018. While Haeg was the primary backup for both tackle spots, he was also called on to play guard, both when injuries and quality of play dictated. Haeg played every spot on the line but center, and several times played multiple positions in the same game. While Haeg isn’t a player that anyone wants to be the starter going into a season, he’s a valuable reserve who offers solid play and incredible versatility.

The Steelers have eight solid linemen right now on the roster, enough to have five starters and solid depth behind them. But there is a big overlap with three players in the center/interior line backup, and only one extra tackle, so we could see someone win a spot as a depth tackle, especially with Haeg’s versatility to play guard.

The Rest of the Roster

John Leglue

Leglue stepped in when the Steelers depth chart had Joe Haeg poised to be the starting left guard while backing up both tackle spots. Leglue played well enough to solidify the spot and stabilize the depth chart. In Week 17, facing the Cleveland Browns, he and center Hassenauer played a phenomenal game as they cleared the way for Najee Harris to gain 188 rushing yards, earning the Steelers a sweep of the Browns. While they couldn’t replicate that success again, Leglue showed he has some value.

While he played guard in his only NFL action last season, he is listed as a tackle and played tackle a good bit in college. He is mostly known as a pass blocker, but his best game was run blocking against the Browns. The question in 2022 is if Leglue can earn a spot as a depth tackle with versatility to play guard. As I mentioned above, the Steelers are deep at guard capable players, but not tackle capable ones. It also is worth noting how when Leglue stepped in at guard, it was after the Steelers replaced Hassenauer with Haeg at left guard due to quality of play. Leglue is on the outside looking in, but there is a path to making the roster after his performance last season.

Chaz Green

Green is another player who will be looking to turn their ability to be a backup tackle into a roster spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green has played in 39 NFL games, and started eight. But in his only season with the Steelers Green only played special teams in the few games he made the active game day roster. The road to making the roster exists, but it is a tough one.

Malcolm Pridgeon

Another tackle with long odds to make the roster, Pridgeon took the opt-out option for the 2020 season, then joined the Steelers for the 2021 season. He earned a futures contract and that gets him on this list with a shot to make it.

Room for Improvement

While the Steelers have room to add a player in the draft, they certainly could roll into next season with this line and have a full roster of players who have at least shown promise at the NFL level.

I can’t imagine the Steelers adding a guard, they have two starters and plenty of depth.

They could look for an upgrade at center, anything other than a high pick, ready to shine year 1 player would be competition for the job with Green and Cole, and that seems like a waste. There aren’t many NFL ready centers in this class, and it would take a strange draft to end up with Tyler Linderbaum sitting there as the best chance for the Steelers to improve the roster at pick No. 20.

For tackle, the Steelers could look to upgrade a starter, add quality depth or a developmental piece and it would make sense. That’s what makes the most sense to me, the Steelers take a tackle sometime in the middle rounds to give some competition and depth behind the starters and Joe Haeg.