Steelers’ Chuks Okorafor confident after rookie season
On New Year’s Eve, less than 24 hours after the Pittsburgh Steelers season ended, Chuks Okorafor paused for a moment as he stood in the locker room at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Looking back on 2018 caused the eyebrows of the Steelers’ young offensive tackle to rise.
“Honestly it’s been a crazy year,” Okorafor said. “After the season last year (for Western Michigan) just going right into training and then the combine, pro day, minicamp, rookie camp, all the way through the season … It’s just been a long, long process.”
Fitting because Okorafor has come a long way. The 6-foot-6, 320-pound lineman came to the Steelers as a third-round pick from a Mid-American Conference school and as someone who had immigrated to the United States from Botswana as he began high school.
That means he’s still relatively new to American football, in addition to being new to the NFL and to playing at a higher level than the MAC.
But Okorafor proved he wasn’t out of place in limited action as a rookie. He appeared in 12 games with one start at right tackle (in November at Denver), playing 155 offensive snaps. He made two “starts” at “tight end” — meaning, on the first Steelers offensive snap of both Cleveland games, Okorafor lined up wide as an extra tackle.
“After the preseason games and after playing a little bit (at tight end in the regular season) and also playing against Denver, I always feel like I can play here (in the NFL),” Okorafor said. “Hopefully for a long time.”
Like most teams, the Steelers don’t typically draft players in the third round they don’t view as starter-capable. Okorafor didn’t prove that without a doubt during his time as a rookie. But he played well enough to show he has a chance to become a starter.
Okorafor said the strides he made in 2018 concerned the mental part of the game, in techniques he learned from since-departed offensive line coach Mike Munchak and in developing an NFL-caliber body at ages 21 and 22.
“(Strength and conditioning coach Garrett Giemont) helped me out, whether it was making me more flexible or kind of gaining a little bit more kind of mass and losing fat,” Okorafor said. “I have never been in as good as shape.”
After years of stability along the offensive line, the Steelers face some uncertainty this offseason as left guard Ramon Foster (unrestricted free agent) and right tackle Gilbert (high salary-cap hit following two injury-plagued seasons) might not return.
If Gilbert is let go, Okorafor would be a prime candidate to take over as the starting right tackle. But that is not at all assured: Matt Feiler returns after starting 10 games at that spot last season, Jerald Hawkins is healthy after spending 2018 on injured reserve and mammoth-but-raw Zach Banner returns after a redshirt season of sorts on the 53-man roster.
“Everyone’s goal is to play,” Okorafor said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s me, if it’s Matt, if it’s Gil coming, if it’s Banner, if it’s Hawk — everyone’s goal is to play. Obviously you are in the NFL, and you just want to play and prove yourself every day. So yeah. I have no idea what is going to happen, but we are going to see how this all ends up.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .