How much continuity has the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line had? And just how rare is that?
Put it this way: Putting aside temporary injury- (or suspension-) related fill-ins, the starting five this season will undergo its first change since the middle of the 2015 season. Across the rest of the team, there are only four players who can reasonably be said to have held on to starting jobs throughout that span (Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree).
So when someone other than Marcus Gilbert gets first-team practice reps at right tackle and starts the season opener in September, rest assured, it will be somewhat jarring to the Steelers.
“I love Gil,” said center Maurkice Pouncey, Gilbert’s Steelers teammate for eight seasons. “That’s my guy. I hate that (a trade of Gilbert to Arizona) happened.”
Fortunately for the Steelers, though, the decision to trade Gilbert was an easy one — and not just to shed a salary-cap hit of roughly $5 million. It’s because the Steelers have no shortage of quality, deserving candidates to replace Gilbert.
“They bring in the right type of guys,” Pouncey said. “The guys who like to work, like to work on their craft.”
The starting right tackle spot is one of the few position battles of any type for the Steelers over the summer and into training camp; it’s certainly the lone all-or-nothing competition that needs to be decided before the Sept. 8 season opener.
And there are at least four potential contenders: Matt Feiler, Chuks Okorafor, Jerald Hawkins, Zach Banner. Feiler is the incumbent after having a virtual “interim” tag attached to his claim to the gig for 10 games last season.
Okorafor was drafted specifically to fill a future opening at tackle when the Steelers took him in the third round last year.
Hawkins combines a degree of reasonable pedigree (three-year starter at LSU, NFL fourth-round pick in 2016) and experience in the organization. But he has just one NFL start and missed two full seasons because of injury.
The 6-foot-8 Banner is the longest shot of this quartet. But the Steelers clearly are intrigued by him, as evidenced by keeping him on the 53-man roster all of last season.
.@KGorman_Trib: Jerald Hawkins is approaching an anniversary, but instead of celebrating, the #Steelers
offensive tackle views it as symbolic of how much he wants to play football. https://t.co/6QpPy46zoz
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) May 24, 2019
“Guys are competing,” Pouncey said. “When you have competition with (Feiler), Chuks, Hawkins and Banner, it brings the best out of you. We’ll see whenever camp comes.”
What we’ve seen so far is Feiler getting first-team reps, which is not unexpected after he performed admirably (Pro Football Focus rated him “above average”) in his first full-time NFL action last season.
It has been a long road to that point for Feiler, an undrafted Bloomsburg alumnus who spent three full seasons on NFL practice squads and one mostly as a Sunday inactive before his breakthrough last season. As such, he insists he’s not changing his approach now that he has starting NFL experience.
“Not really. There’s always preparation to be done, and ways to get better and I have got to keep doing the same thing I’ve been doing because to me I feel like it’s been working for me,” Feiler said after an organized team activity session last week. “So it’s an ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ mentality.”
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) November 26, 2018
Okorafor might be whom the Steelers are privately rooting for because he might have the highest upside. A small-school product (Western Michigan) who took up football relatively later in life, Okorafor said Year 2 in the NFL “is so much more smoother for me.”
“It feels different,” Okorafor added. “Now, you’re accustomed to how everything is going to go, in meetings and in practice. How the guys are working and how practice goes, things like that.”
Of all four of the candidates, the stakes perhaps are lowest for Okorafor. His roster spot is probably safe regardless; the same likely cannot be said for Hawkins and Banner. And at 27 next month and scheduled to be a restricted free agent in the spring, Feiler could see his career take off if he holds onto the gig.
“Everyone wants to be the starter,” Okorafor said. “But among us, it doesn’t matter. We all want to play, but me, Zach, Matt, Hawk, we all support each other.”