The Steelers have used the free agency period to bolster their offensive line, adding guards Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo and tackle Le’Raven Clark to a unit that returns its starting five from last season. Clark is purely a depth piece, but Herbig and Seumalo were both starters in 2022, with the Jets and Eagles, respectively. This gives Pittsburgh seven starting-quality linemen, as well as an opportunity to add another in the draft.
As recently as 2021, the Steelers were so thin up front they were forced to start an unprepared rookie, Kendrick Green, at center. That was a disaster. Now, they have flexibility. It isn’t exactly an embarrassment of riches, but they are deeper than they’ve been in recent seasons. How they choose to align these players is an interesting discussion. Who should start for Pittsburgh, and at what positions, to create the best unit? Here are some options, with a poll at the end where you can cast a vote for your preference.
Option #1: The Expected Play
LT Dan Moore Jr, LG Isaac Seumalo, C Mason Cole, RG James Daniels, RT Chuks Okorafor
If Vegas were laying odds on which starting configuration the Steelers will choose, this would be the favorite. It’s the unit that allows for the greatest upgrade without completely disrupting the chemistry of the line. The only switch involves the insertion of Seumalo at left guard in place of the much-maligned Kevin Dotson. It’s a fairly simple approach to improving a group that was decent last season but has plenty of room for growth.
Seumalo is a superior player to Dotson. PFF ranked him as the 10th best guard in the NFL last season, when he was named an alternate to the Pro Bowl. He was revered by his line mates in Philly for his workman-like approach and his attention to detail. Eagles All-Pro center Jason Kelce had this to say about Seumalo in a piece that ran in The Athletic:
“Here’s what makes him good: consistency. I think highlight blocks are awesome to watch on tape. But the true mark of good offensive line play is consistency. If you do your job every play, that’s more important than the guy who maybe 40 percent of the time kills somebody, but 20 percent of the time he’s not blocking his guy. I would much rather have five guys who consistently do their job than having three, four guys that are splash players.”
The contrast Kelce drew between the consistent player and the “40 percent” guy is the difference between Seumalo and Dotson. Dotson has been that splash player at times. He has made blocks that prompt you to rewind the tape to marvel at him manhandling 320-pound defensive tackles. He has also been a player who whiffs on blocks because of poor technique, or buries himself on double teams and allows a linebacker to come unblocked through his gap, or fails to recognize a twist stunt and lets a pass rusher come free.
Seumalo is a pro’s pro. He’s not spectacular, but his understanding of scheme, his use of hands, and his communication with teammates are all expert-level. Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave, two of Philadelphia’s best interior defenders, remarked in that same piece by The Athletic that Seumalo was their least favorite offensive lineman to practice against. Seumalo, they said, had no tells as to what play was coming. Often, linemen will cheat back a bit if they are pulling, or won’t put as much weight on their hand if they’re going to pass set. But Seumalo’s stance and demeanor before the snap were always the same.
It’s a small detail. But it’s telling.
Seumalo is coming from a system in Philadelphia that produced arguably the best offensive line in the league last season under the tutelage of one of its best coaches, Jeff Stoutland. Seumalo was credited with helping Stoutland design Philly’s creative run game. This is not surprising. Seumalo was the son of a college coach and grew up around the game. His football IQ is said to be excellent.
Dotson, meanwhile, has occasionally been in the doghouse in Pittsburgh. When asked in 2021 if Dotson would run with the first team in training camp, Mike Tomlin remarked, “He’s done nothing to earn first-team reps. What are we talking about? He’s a second-year guy who hasn’t worked.” Dotson’s 2022 performance ranked 30th among 77 qualifying guards per PFF. While that’s not terrible, his lack of discipline — he tied for 3rd among all NFL linemen with 11 penalties — was a source of frustration.
Replacing Dotson with Seumalo, then, seems logical. If that were the only move the Steelers made up front, it would be understandable. They would upgrade arguably their weakest link with the best guard in the free agent class while keeping the rest of the unit intact. That move alone won’t transform Pittsburgh into a Top 5 unit in the league. But it would address a major problem without jeopardizing continuity.
Option #2: The Left-Side Overhaul
LT Draft Pick X, LG Isaac Seumalo, C Mason Cole, RG James Daniels, RT Chuks Okorafor
There’s also the play of Moore to consider. While Moore graded out as Pittsburgh’s best run blocker last season, he struggled in pass protection, which is the primary responsibility of a left tackle. Moore gave up seven sacks, which tied for seventh most in the league, and committed 10 penalties, which tied for eighth most. He pass set poorly at times, often failing to get enough depth to cut off speed rushers and to work with a base wide enough to blunt power moves. Maybe this is something line coach Pat Meyer can fix. Maybe not.
There are good arguments for retaining Moore as the starter. He is just 24, and his play improved as last season progressed. Replacing him as well as Dotson creates a potential continuity issue. And Moore, entering just his third season, is still on his rookie deal, with cap hits of $1.1 and $1.2 million the next two seasons. Finally, there is the question of whom to replace him with. The free agent tackle market at this point is thin, with available players like Taylor Lewan, Isaiah Wynn and George Fant coming with either age, injury or salary issues. Running it back with Moore seems a better bet than signing any of those players.
What about the draft, though? Much has been made of Pittsburgh’s interest in offensive tackles throughout the pre-draft process. The consensus best tackles — Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski and Ohio State’s Paris Johnson — are unlikely to be available when the Steelers pick at 1:17. But if Georgia’s Broderick Jones or Tennessee’s Darnell Wright are on the board, the Steelers could select one with the intention of replacing Moore.
Pittsburgh has not drafted an offensive tackle in the 1st Round since taking Jamain Stephens in 1996, or in the 2nd Round since Mike Adams in 2013. Neither of those players panned out, so it’s understandable if the franchise is skittish about using a premium pick at tackle. Those picks were made a long time ago, however, and by a different front office. Now that Andy Weidl is preparing Pittsburgh’s draft board, it would not be surprising to see the Steelers take a tackle early to push Moore for the starting job. With Seumalo as a mentor, Pittsburgh may be less hesitant about inserting a rookie into the lineup.
Which rookie should they select? That’s a matter of opinion and availability. I wrote about my affinity for Wright in the article below. But if any of the first four are there at 1:17, the Steelers might jump.
Option #3: Go Big or Go Home
LT Dan Moore Jr, LG Isaac Seumalo, C Nate Herbig, RG James Daniels, RT Chuks Okorafor
The news of the Herbig signing flew under the radar amid the flurry of activity in Pittsburgh during the first week of free agency. But Herbig is an experienced player with 28 starts in 44 NFL games. Most of his experience is at guard, but he’s played center, too.
Herbig is massive at 6’4-340 and would beef up the center position currently occupied by Mason Cole. Cole is not exactly small (6’5-305), but he did struggle at times with some of the bigger, more physical one-tech defensive tackles the Steelers faced last season.
Herbig, whose nickname is “Nasty Nate,” excels as a run blocker. He has been described as a “menace” in the run game, which is a polite way of saying he’s an ass-kicker. That physicality is especially evident in the inside zone scheme, which the Steelers lean on heavily, and which relies on interior double teams to move defensive linemen off the football.
Herbig is also agile enough to reach-block defenders, and he can climb to the second level fairly well. He struggles to get out on sweep and trap plays, and his pass protection can be shaky at times. Moving him to center, then, would alleviate the need for him to pull. It would also provide him help in protection between Seumalo and Daniels.
The Steelers could be nervous about replacing Cole, who wasn’t terrible last season, and about asking Kenny Pickett to work with a new center. But with their reliance on the inside run game, and their determination to establish a physical mindset up front, replacing a blocker who leans more on technique like Cole with a brute like Herbig could be attractive.
Option #4: The Baldy Plan
LT Dan Moore Jr, LG Isaac Seumalo, C Draft Pick X, RG Nate Herbig, RT Chuks Okorafor
In this scenario, the Steelers would replace all three interior linemen, swapping Dotson and Daniels for the newly-acquired Seumalo and Herbig and replacing Cole with a draft pick. This idea was pitched recently by NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, who believes neither Cole nor Daniels lived up to expectations after coming over as free agents last off-season. The acquisitions of Herbig and Seumalo make Dotson and Daniels expendable, Baldinger reasons, while a deep draft for centers justifies replacing Cole.
It’s hard to imagine the Steelers blowing up the interior of the line entirely, especially if that entails starting a rookie center. But let’s examine Baldinger’s scenario. Daniels does carry a cap hit of $11 million for 2023, and while he was Pittsburgh’s best all-around lineman last season, it’s possible the team could prefer Herbig’s more physical style while putting the cap savings elsewhere. At center, if the Steelers could land the University of Minnesota’s John Mitchell Schmitz, who is widely regarded as the most pro-ready center in the draft, and should be available when they make their initial Round 2 selection at #32, they might make the move. Cole is on the back end of a two-year deal, and retaining him as the interior swing player for a year is feasible. Not likely, but feasible.
Baldinger’s proposal seems unrealistic. But if the Steelers believe the key to taking the line from good to great lies in upgrading the middle, it might be an option.
Option #5: Other
There are other possibilities too, which could include free agents yet to be signed, or configurations not mentioned above. If you’ve got an “Other” in mind, vote for it in the poll below and tell us about it in the comments.
Which option should the Steelers choose for their starting offensive line in 2023?
This poll is closed
A. The Expected Play (Moore-Seumalo-Cole-Daniels-Okorafor)
B. The Left Side Overhaul (Draft Pick X-Seumalo-Cole-Daniels-Okorafor)
C. Go Big or Go Home (Moore-Seumalo-Herbig-Daniels-Okorafor)
D. The Baldy Plan (Moore-Seumalo-Draft Pick X-Herbig-Okorafor)
Coming soon, I’ll have a Film Room out on how these new pieces on offense might foreshadow the scheme we’ll see on the field next season. Be sure to check it out.