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Steelers

Tim Benz: Okorafor helping to prove Steelers' draft strategy made sense

| Sunday, June 17, 2018, 11:24 p.m.
Offensive lineman Chukwuma Okorafor runs through a drill during the Western Michigan's pro day. The Steelers took Okorafor in the third round of the draft.
Offensive lineman Chukwuma Okorafor runs through a drill during the Western Michigan's pro day. The Steelers took Okorafor in the third round of the draft.

Complaints about this year's Steelers draft approach from some in the fan base were frequent and consistent.

• It was too offensively focused for a team that struggled at times on defense in 2017.

• There were too many picks that had the future in mind as opposed to the present.

If you were in that camp, you probably didn't like the third-round selection of Western Michigan offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor.

I admit, I wasn't wild about it at the time.

He was perceived as a project pick with upside. But the thinking at the time was he might not even dress on game day much this year. The back-up swing tackle job was supposed to go to Jerald Hawkins.

Two years ago, when Hawkins was drafted out of Louisiana State, he was the long-range project offensive lineman who would provide depth someday. That someday was supposed to come this year, as he was going to replace Chris Hubbard in that capacity. Not only would that be an important job because of injury insurance, but also because the Steelers love to employ a third tackle in jumbo sets.

That plan fell apart, though, late last month when Hawkins hurt a quad muscle and wound up on injured reserve.

So enter Okorafor, and close the book on that “long-term project” stuff. Because it appears he is being fast-tracked toward absorbing the void left by Hawkins.

“It kinda seems like it is going that way,” Okorafor said during last week's minicamp. “My job is just to learn everything I can and then see what happens in the fall.”

The job won't just be granted to Okorafor. Third-year man Will Feiler could contend for it. But the Steelers might prefer him on the interior of the line. And to hear offensive line coach Mike Munchak talk, it sure sounds like the preference is that Okorafor proves he's worthy of it.

“Chuks, we drafted that guy for that reason,” Munchak said last week. “Now the young guy gets a chance kind of like Al (Villanueva) a few years ago. And last year, Chris Hubbard got the opportunity with Marcus (Gilbert) out. We've got a lot of time to work with him. Right now, that's our guy going forward.”

While fortifying that extra tackle position might have seemed like a luxury, Munchak sees it as more than that because the Steelers weave it into the run game strategy so often. He also pointed out those game reps proved to be crucial in the development of Hubbard and — it was believed before his injury — Hawkins.

“It gets you in the game. You aren't just standing on the sideline the whole game,” Munchak said. “Hubbard used to get 10 plays a game. It really helped their confidence when they had to play for real.”

In fact, Hubbard parlayed that experience into a five-year $36.5 million contract. With Marcus Gilbert's deal expiring after 2019, getting Okorafor starter-capable quickly will be important since Ben Roethlisberger so frequently has tied the prospect of his continued playing status to that of an effective offensive line in front of him.

Okorafor is listed at 6-foot-6, 320 pounds. That's a little smaller than the two starting tackles. But he is believed to have good athleticism and long arms. Munchak also said he is picking up the mental side of the game quickly.

“He's doing well. It's a lot,” Munchak said. “It's very competitive out here. We ask our tackles to do a lot of things. He's done a nice job. He's got a good demeanor for the game. He doesn't get too emotional when things don't go well.

“But so far, so good. The assignments are coming well to him. He's getting used to communicating with the other guys.”

All this being said, would the Steelers have been better served taking an inside linebacker somewhere between the first round and pick 92 when Okorafor was selected?

Yes.

Probably.

But with James Washington likely being no worse than the third receiver this year, Mason Rudolph's good performance in practices, and now Okorafor's quickly augmented role, those complaints about looking to the future too much in the draft might be forgotten quickly.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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