It's much easier to meet expectations when the bar is set ridiculously low. Steelers starting center Mason Cole resembled that remark in 2022.
The inspiration for this article hit me like a ton of bricks a few days ago, after I read an article declaring DeMarvin Leal as the Steelers best kept secret at this point of the offseason. A couple of better options immediately came to mind, but Cole deserves top billing in my opinion.
Cole was little more than experienced depth in the minds of many casual fans when he signed a three year free agent contract with the Steelers last offseason. Fellow newcomer James Daniels was the prized free agent signing for the Steelers, while Cole was viewed as versatile depth.
The Steelers center situation was as pathetic in 2021 as I have ever seen it. The Steelers are a franchise renowned for their Hall of Fame caliber centers through the decades. The once proud position had definitely fallen on tough times.
Kendrick Green wasn't just a rookie starter trying to make a position switch at the highest level, he was also the worst starting center in the NFL. Green was so subpar he made his backup J.C. Hassenauer actually appear serviceable, even though Hassenauer has no business starting an NFL game.
Mason Cole was the best center on the roster the moment he stepped foot in the facilities. He looked even better than he actually played because of the aforementioned low bar. But make no mistake about it, Cole is an honest to goodness NFL caliber starting center, and he is going to prove any naysayers wrong this season. There are numerous reasons why.
Cole is finally in the ideal professional scenario for him to shine in 2023.
After an accomplished collegiate career at Michigan, which saw him start a record 51 contests for the Wolverines offensive line, Cole was a third round selection by the Arizona Cardinals in 2018. After starting all 16 games at center for the Cardinals as a rookie in 2018, Cole found himself relegated to a backup role in 2019. The rest of his tenure with the Cardinals featured the occasional start and spot duty on a mediocre unit.
Cole was traded to the Minnesota Vikings in 2021, in exchange for a sixth round selection. He started a handful of games for the Vikings, both at center and guard, and his position versatility was on full display. The Steelers definitely noticed his potential, and signed him as a serious upgrade at center, regardless of how many doubters viewed him.
Cole definitely didn't disappoint the Steelers, and he quickly rewarded their faith in him, and he did it all while basically playing on one healthy leg, after dealing with nagging foot and ankle injuries to his left leg for the majority of the 2022 season. Cole should be even more effective after a full season in the Steelers system, and finally operating at full strength.
Cole proved to be an excellent tactician, communicator, and leader for the Steelers rather young offensive line. For that matter, he was a calming prescence for the Steelers youthful offense in general, and his rookie starting QB in particular.
Cole stands to reap the rewards of being surrounded by what is arguably the best starting guard tandem in the NFL: LG Isaac Seumalo and RG James Daniels. The talented bookends could very well help Cole take his game to the next level, which would put him in Pro Bowl consideration.
Philadelphia Eagles All Pro center Jason Kelce praised Seumalo's abilities just last week, stating Seumalo was the most intelligent player he has ever played with. That's great news for Cole, because Cole shares plenty of strengths and weaknesses with Kelce. Like Kelce, Cole can struggle at times against power and girth. Cole is more brains than brawn, so having a fundamentally sound tag team partner to execute double team blocks with suits Cole to a tee. Now he has two of them in Seumalo and Daniels.
There was plenty of talk leading up to the draft about the Steelers possibly taking a talented young understudy for Cole to mentor in the early rounds, but the Steelers had bigger fish to fry and much more urgent needs.
Besides, Cole just recently turned 28 years young, with 55 professional starts under his belt. He still has plenty of tread on the tires, plus some impressive experience, without too much wear and tear on his frame. Cole should also benefit from the prescence of Nate Herbig, a player many fans believe will compete with Cole for the starting center position.
I personally believe that Cole's starting gig is secure, as his fluid mobility is a better fit for Pat Meyer's zone blocking concepts than Herbig's short area brute force approach. On the plus side, any camp competition should only bring out the best in both gentlemen.
For all the reasons mentioned in this article, I believe that Mason Cole is perfectly positioned for a breakout season in 2023, and would be my choice as the Steelers best kept secret.