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5 positional battles the Steelers will need to begin sorting out during OTAs

These five storylines will remain pertinent until the season begins.

Karl Roser/Pittsburgh Steelers

With the calendar having officially flipped to June, the Steelers have begun their third and final week of OTAs. However, the team’s reprieve is short-lived with mandatory minicamp beginning Tuesday, June 13.

It can be difficult to ascertain how much weight to put into (intentionally) limited drills, workouts and practices as a team is just getting accustomed to its roster and staff. However, with six OTAs in the books, certain players — such as Kenny Pickett and Cory Trice Jr. — have stood out.

As Pittsburgh concludes OTAs and transitions into minicamp, here are five positions of heightened importance that should only get clearer as the offseason progresses.

Left (and right?) tackle

When the Steelers drafted Broderick Jones with the 14th overall pick, many felt that the Georgia product would immediately be Pittsburgh’s starting left tackle, even as a rookie. After all, Dan Moore Jr. has been inconsistent in his two years manning the team’s blindside.

However, it’s not surefire guarantee that Jones is on a fast track to start to begin the year, especially with the Steelers set to face elite edge rushers in Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett/Za’Darius Smith and Maxx Crosby/Chandler Jones/Tyree Wilson in just the first two weeks. Despite lapses, Moore is still only 24 and has flashed success.

Besides determining the team’s starter at left tackle, the same may occur on the opposite side. Per Alan Saunders of Steelers Now, Moore has also earned reps at right tackle during OTAs. That change is noteworthy, because Chuks Okorafor has been the team’s starting RT since 2020.

Okorafor signed a three-year, $29.25 million contract with Pittsburgh in March 2022 but has yet to emerge as a solidified force. Last year, the 25-year-old surrendered 41 pressures, tied for the 10th-most among tackles.

Effectively, the Steelers have three young tackles vying for starting roles, with one inevitably ending the offseason discontent. As the team looks to augment Kenny Pickett’s protection, determining first-team tackles will be paramount.

Nose tackle

The Steelers’ defensive line was generally stout last year courtesy of continued domination from all-world Cam Heyward, plus a good year from Larry Ogunjobi. Despite the two D-linemen combining for 88 pressures, 66 stops and 21 tackles for loss, Pittsburgh enjoyed little success inside at nose tackle.

While Tyson Alualu began 2022 as the team’s starter at NT, his play seemingly took several steps back. That opened the door for Montravius Adams, but Adams was also spotty, getting washed out of plays far too often.

Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan recognized that roster construction was needed at IDL, and the two titans began laying concrete. In free agency, the Steelers signed both Armon Watts and Breiden Fehoko. Then, Pittsburgh drafted Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton in the second round.

Though Adams heads into 2023 having claimed the bulk of starting duties toward the latter portion of last season, nose tackle remains an open and healthy competition entering September. It would surprise few if Benton ultimately claimed a primary spot alongside Heyward and Ogunjobi; regardless, the Steelers need more consistent production at NT and have several players who could fill that void.

Slot receiver

Following the Steelers’ trade of Chase Claypool, Steven Sims Jr. became the team’s top slot option, earning nearly 24.5% of snaps last season. However, Sims signed with the Houston Texans in free agency, which established the need for an inside wideout.

While some believed Pittsburgh would hand the reins to 2022 draft pick Calvin Austin III, Khan made a surprise acquisition in veteran Allen Robinson, adding the ex-Ram in mid-April.

The Steelers seemingly defied general team philosophy by not drafting a receiver this year, which renders Robinson, Austin, Gunner Olszewski and Anthony Miller legitimate candidates to start at slot receiver. In light of the fact that Austin has yet to play a snap in the NFL, let alone in a preseason game, the 29-year-old Robinson is likely the favorite. However, strong showings in OTAs/minicamp/training camp could put a greater spotlight on Austin, one of the team’s bigger X-factors in 2023.

TE2 responsibilities

In 2022, Pat Freiermuth continued his ascendance during his second year, ranking sixth in the NFL among tight ends in receptions (63) and receiving yards (732). In addition to Freiermuth’s stardom, Pittsburgh continually featured rookie Connor Heyward more as the year went along: Heyward earned 11 of his 17 targets and played 118 of his 175 offensive snaps from Week 8 onward.

According to Warren Sharp, Pittsburgh ran 12 personnel (with two tight ends) on 20% of pass plays last season, using the mix of Freiermuth, Zach Gentry and Heyward. However, after drafting Herculean Darnell Washington in the third round, that metric will likely climb immensely.

A year ago, Gentry played 49.7% of snaps as the team’s second TE, but struggles in run blocking — plus the emergence of Heyward — cast some doubt as to Gentry’s TE2 status. A loaded tight end room has (literally) only gotten more crowded after the addition of the 6-foot-7, 270-pound Washington.

As Tomlin and Matt Canada tinker with offensive sets and personnel groupings, keep an eye on how the team utilizes its well-versed TE room, with particular attention on who becomes TE2.

Starting cornerback rotations

With the Steelers losing Cam Sutton, yet adding Patrick Peterson, in free agency, it seemed as if the team’s top two outside corner options would be clear: Peterson and Levi Wallace. However, with the potential of Joey Porter Jr. and Trice starting to materialize (albeit, in mere scrimmage situations), Pittsburgh has to figure out how to best leverage its talent at corner.

When the Steelers parted with Arthur Maulet, many expected newcomer Chandon Sullivan to be the top selection at slot/nickel. However, Peterson saw time inside during the second week of OTAs, which enabled Porter to start outside. The 33-year-old Peterson has only played 129 snaps in the slot in the last three seasons, but Tomlin has already discussed him even seeing time at positions like safety.

Pittsburgh still has no shortage of time to figure out its desired cornerback groupings, but whether the rookies start, and who plays the lion’s share inside, will be highly intriguing.