In 4th Steelers season, Jerald Hawkins out to show he’s healthy, worthy
By official NFL accounting, Jerald Hawkins is in his fourth season. Only four of his fellow Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linemen have more tenure.
Then again, Hawkins has only five games and 47 snaps of professional regular-season experience.
That makes the offensive tackle a unique player to watch in Friday’s preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A 25-year-old former fourth-round pick, Hawkins will be making his 11th NFL appearance — counting five prior preseason games — and his first since December 2017.
“I have shown I can do it,” Hawkins said earlier during training camp. “Now it’s just a matter of staying healthy and doing it.”
The latter is what Hawkins is striving for during this preseason. The former plagued him in two of his first three NFL seasons after the Steelers took him with the 123rd pick of the 2016 draft. Hawkins appeared in one preseason game his rookie season before a shoulder injury landed him on injured reserve. His 2018 season ended three months before it was to start when he suffered a torn quadriceps muscle during organized team activities.
A fourth-round pick in 2016, Jerald Hawkins has lost two of his first three seasons to injury. For him, spring can't come fast enough.https://t.co/VdWZgT0HXl
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) February 16, 2019
“It’s frustrating, but it’s made me realize technique plays a big part of (playing offensive line in the NFL),” Hawkins said. “(In college), I was just more just athletic, just moving around, running around and being in front of people strength-wise. But watching and learning and being part of this the past couple years, it’s shown me more to cherish my technique, and that has come a long way.”
But even if Hawkins’ technique has come a long way, has his health? Hawkins termed himself “80 percent” when camp began, and he often is seen with an ice bag on his left upper leg. Hawkins was excused from the camp-opening conditioning run, another sign he’s not completely healthy.
But Hawkins has no time to wait for 100%. As coach Mike Tomlin often puts it, the moving train of the season will leave with or without him. And perhaps as a result of a left leg that isn’t all the way back, or maybe because of accumulated rust associated with playing only parts of 11 live games over the past 44 months, Hawkins has struggled at times on the Saint Vincent practice fields. He particularly has had trouble blocking second-team right outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi.
Hawkins has typically slotted in as the second-team left tackle, but he’s played some right tackle and on occasion will rep at guard.
He is well-liked among his teammates, an always-smiling and gregarious guy for whom Tomlin seems to have an affection. But as he enters the final year of his contract and at a competitive position, time might be running out for Hawkins.
After the starting five (assuming Matt Feiler wins the No. 1 right tackle job), Chuks Okorafor and B.J. Finney are guaranteed roster spots. That leaves Hawkins among a group that includes 53-man returnee Zach Banner, impressive undrafted rookie Fred Johnson, rookie seventh-round pick Derwin Gray, practice squad returnee Patrick Morris, first-year interior lineman J.C. Hassenauer and others fighting for what is, at most, two 53-man roster spots.
In short, Hawkins needs a strong showing in preseason games. Assuming he’s healthy enough to play (Hawkins sat out Wednesday’s practice for an undisclosed reason), he’s expected to start Friday at Heinz Field.
“All I can do is just keep getting better, always be improving,” Hawkins said. “I’ve been part of the crew for a while now. I’ve just got to keep with it.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .