The Pittsburgh Steelers have always been associated with hard-nosed, determined football in the trenches, and as a general rule of thumb, this association has primarily been due to strong Steeler defensive lines. While the 2017-2018 Pittsburgh Steelers do possess a formidable defensive line, their most definite strength in the trenches comes from the offensive side of the ball.
The group’s evolution since some of its darker days, which featured an unprecedented amount of brutal hits to franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, is truly remarkable. For several years, it seemed like every passing down would elicit fans taking deep breaths and hoping to see their quarterback be able to survive and stay in the game. Many times he did not. Nagging injuries plagued Roethlisberger’s career for years.
Nowadays, the Steelers offensive line as a position group is widely regarded as one of the best in the NFL, with Pro Football Focus ranking them third in the league behind Tennessee and Dallas. With Roethlisberger’s health being a major concern for the team, they hired Todd Haley as offensive coordinator and Mike Munchak as offensive line coach, signifying the front office would make significant investment in protecting their franchise quarterback. This coaching staff’s continued efforts and high standards, paired with excellent on-field talent, have led this position group to the top.
Offensive line is one of the most important position groups in football, as protecting the quarterback is of the utmost importance. This offseason, the Steelers face some difficult decisions with their offensive line, but thankfully, these decisions don’t pertain to starters, but to depth.
Who will make the 53-man roster at offensive line?
The starting five
For certain, the starting 5 of Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert will make the roster. This is one of the most cohesive and talented position groups in the NFL, and with their accomplishments, it’s fairly certain there will be no surprise cuts. The only players that could be perceived as weak links in this group would be Villanueva, who was limited early in his career but has improved his craft tremendously since moving to left tackle, and Pouncey, who is expensive and injury-prone. However, when healthy, both are excellent players and I would be shocked if either were cut.
The real questions is which players will be kept around for depth. I believe the team will keep three players for depth, but I would not be surprised to see them keep an extra developmental prospect.
Jerald Hawkins, Tackle
Hawkins was drafted in the fourth round in 2016, but the extremely athletic prospect found himself injured early in the preseason of his rookie year, spending the year on injured reserve. His ceiling and measurables are through the roof, but Pittsburgh already has two very solid starters at tackle. However, this offseason, coaches have been impressed with Hawkins’ competitive demeanor and desire to improve, and have quipped that had he come out a year later for the 2017 draft, he could have been drafted as high as the first round. Teammates and coaches alike have been impressed by Hawkins, and having quality depth at tackle should be a priority for the Steelers, so Hawkins is a good fit here.
B.J. Finney, Guard/Center
Added to the roster in 2015 after going undrafted, Finney was part of Pittsburgh’s final cuts, joining the practice squad for the year. The following year, he made the 53 man roster and filled in at both guard and center, starting a total of three games. Finney played center in college at Kansas State, but in his rookie season, he especially shined at guard when filling in for Ramon Foster. His best game came against Buffalo, where he and the rest of the line helped Le’Veon Bell rush for 236 yards and three touchdowns. Finney offers quality depth at both positions, so he is very likely to make the roster.
Chris Hubbard, Guard/Tackle
Fresh off a new one-year contract, Hubbard is easily the most versatile lineman on the Steelers roster. Hubbard can serve as a tackle, guard, or center if needed, and he even lines up as a tight end in some offensive packages. Versatility and skill separate Hubbard from many of the other backup linemen, and with the team making a significant investment ($1.8 million for 1 year) in keeping him around another year, it’s very clear Hubbard has a high chance of making the roster.
Ethan Cooper, Guard
Of the players most likely to take a ninth spot on the offensive line, Cooper would make the most sense. Signing as an undrafted free agent after going undrafted out of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Cooper is a hometown favorite. He has the physical talent to be a quality guard in the NFL, and he could be a candidate to sit and develop behind Ramon Foster. I don’t think he will make this roster, but he is young, cheap, and capable of developing into a quality player, so I wouldn’t rule him out entirely.
Brian Mihalik, Tackle
Mihalik has the frame and the physical tools to be a serviceable tackle in the NFL, and his spot on the roster will rely primarily on how quickly he can develop at that position. A converted defensive lineman, Mihalik actually saw time on the Steelers active roster in 2016, but didn’t impress. If he progresses significantly in camp, he could compete for a 9th OL spot, but with Hawkins and Hubbard more than capable of filling in at both tackle spots, I just don’t see it happening.
Cody Wallace, Center
Wallace has been a quality backup at center for a few years, filling in during some of Maurkice Pouncey’s extended absences, but a knee injury caused him to miss all of 2016. Currently a free agent, Wallace has garnered interest from New Orleans and Green Bay, despite still rehabbing his knee. I included him because Pittsburgh as an organization places a great amount of value in familiarity and experience, and I think this could factor into Wallace once again finding his way onto the roster. This is one familiar face I could see being a midseason emergency signing, but given his injury and interest from other teams, outside of that, I don’t think he’ll be seen in a Steelers uniform any time soon.
Potential practice squad signees:
Two players I could see being practice squad stashes (besides the three aforementioned players) are Jake Rodgers and Kyle Friend. Friend is a tough but undersized center from Temple with significant intangibles, and Rodgers is a raw tackle from Eastern Washington who needs improved technique to compete at the NFL level. Another player to watch is Matt Feiler, who played at DII Bloomberg University. Feiler has NFL size but needs an overhaul in terms of technique in order to succeed.
Who do you think the Steelers will keep on the offensive line? Let us know in the comments below.