It was billed as the lone winner-take-all starting position battle during this Pittsburgh Steelers training camp.
But has Matt Feiler’s strong play on the practice fields of Saint Vincent already rendered the Steelers’ starting right tackle verdict moot?
The man with perhaps the most input into that decision smiled when asked that question.
“You know,” new offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett said, “Matt’s done a heck of a job in camp. He’s competed at a high level, and he’s done everything he can do. In my mind right now he’s leading the pack at the starting right tackle position.
“With that being said, the competition is not over yet — we haven’t played a preseason game yet.”
That will change 7:30 p.m. Friday when the Steelers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their preseason opener.
Barring something unforeseen, Feiler will start at right tackle, just as he did for 10 games last season filling in for an injured Marcus Gilbert, who has since been traded. Feiler has run with the first-team offense for the entirety of training camp, too. The only times we haven’t seen him at right tackle are when the Steelers have given him reps at one of the guard spots, purportedly to keep his skills fresh at that position.
4 players jockeying for Steelers’ starting right tackle jobhttps://t.co/4p1xl1bX1d
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) June 4, 2019
The starting five of Gilbert, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva had spent five seasons together. And the strong-as-a-rock Feiler (hence, his nickname, “Anchor”) appears to have seamlessly fit in just fine.
“I feel like every day you’ve got to earn everybody’s respect,” Feiler said, “and it just comes with working hard and doing the right things. I feel like for the most part, I’ve been doing that.”
While Chuks Okorafor, Jerald Hawkins and Zach Banner are still, technically, in the running to start at right tackle, at this point it seemingly would take a total collapse by Feiler (or injury) for the depth chart to change. It hasn’t budged for one rep through organized team activities, minicamp and two weeks of training camp.
Okorafor and Banner, in particular, have impressed in their own ways, though, and good outings against enemy competition beginning Friday could help them lock down spots on the 53-man roster.
It is at the backup line spots where arguably the most heated competitions are on the Steelers offense. Okorafor and fourth-year center/guard B.J. Finney are locks to make the team, but the pool of talent for — at most — two other 53-man roster spots is deep. And so is the jockeying for perhaps two practice-squad designations.
“We have been going through that process,” coach Mike Tomlin said of whittling down the offensive line to a group that will be with the team when it plays New England on Sept. 8. “The natural attrition that is this process creates opportunity for guys to show versatility, for guys to move up and get reps with more veteran groups.
“I am excited about getting those guys in the stadium and seeing what they can do individually and collectively.”
Okorafor, Banner and Hawkins are leading the brigade of second-team tackles, with utility backup Finney leading a solid crop of second-team interior linemen such as impressive undrafted rookie Fred Johnson, returning practice-squad player Patrick Morris, first-year former Alabama starting center J.C. Hassenauer and rookie seventh-round pick Derwin Gray.
Each can probably make a legitimate case he is deserving of a 53-man roster spot. And each will get on-field auditions to impress Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert and Sarrett.
“Having too many good players, it’s always a good problem to have,” Sarrett said. “I think there are guys on our second and third teams that can play elsewhere. And that’s something we will work through these next four games and we will make our decisions from there — what fits us best and we go from there.
“A lot of guys have looked good out here (at Saint Vincent), but can they do it in the games? It’ll be exciting to find out, and that starts Friday night.”