By Jeremy Hritz
2021 is a fresh start for the Steelers at several positions and for several different reasons. At running back, following the departure of James Connor and the underperformance of the backup stable of running backs, Najee Harris was drafted as the lead runner to re-energize the ground game. Matt Fieler was not re-signed and left for Los Angeles Chargers, opening the door for second-year stud, Kevin Dotson. And at center, a fixture, a constant with the team, Maurkice Pouncey, announced his retirement, opening the door for a new starter in the middle of the offensive line, possibly ready to contribute for 10+ years.
It is well documented that the Steelers history with starting centers is like their head coaches: there are few of them, they last for a while, and they are damn good. Names such as Mike Webster, Ray Mansfield, and Dermontti Dawson are legendary with the team, and Pouncey seamlessly fits right in. Yet now, with his retirement, the search is on to find his replacement, or at least, a player who can fill the void serviceably until their next center-with-longevity is discovered.
It will be weird to see Ben Roethlisberger line up under a center with a name other than Pouncey, but that is the reality for the upcoming season, and there are three names at the position, 2 of whom will be competing for the starting spot, and one who should end up on the practice squad.
Green Is Green, But the Expectations Are High
Kendrick Green, who was drafted in the 3rd round out of Illinois, is athletic, physical, and aggressive, and I foresee him earning the starting job by the end of training camp. Pouncey brought physicality and athleticism to the position, in addition to his leadership, and Green offers those things as well, though executing them at the level Pouncey did would be too much to ask from the rookie. Also, it is not realistic to expect him to provide leadership at such a young age. If he can, then the Steelers have in fact found their man for the next decade, but it’s best to temper expectations.
Along with Green’s strengths are his challenges, which are lack of length and size, which he must show are not limiting factors for him in the NFL. In Matt Canada’s offense, we can expect more movement from the OL; however, with an aged Ben, Green will need to show he can anchor and hold up against massive defensive linemen.
His talents and upside give much to be excited about, and should he show he is a fast learner in camp, he will be the starter week 1. If he struggles to pick up the offense, and if he shows he needs another year to get stronger and more accustomed to the professional game, he will open the door for the #2, BJ Finney.
Finney already has Steelers starting experience at guard, and he returns to the team following brief stays in Cincinnati and Seattle. He has seen that the grass is not greener, and has come full circle to re-sign with the team who signed him as an undrafted free agent. Finney is a little bigger than Green, has experience, and can be a force in run blocking; conversely, his pass protection is just adequate, and it will be interesting to see how he can adapt his game to the Canada offense.
Finney is insurance in the event that Green needs 1 more year to develop. Should Green need more time, it’s not a bad situation to have Finney as your starter. At 29, he will never be the long term answer at center, but he can step in in a pinch at center and guard, compounding his value for the team.
3 and Out
The third center on the depth chart, is JC Hassenauer out of Alabama, who was signed by the Steelers in 2019. Last season, due to injury, Hassenauer earned starting experience, something that makes him valuable heading into training camp. Undersized, and not a full-time starter when he was at Alabama, Hassenauer is the classic underdog story, and his perseverance led to the Steelers signing him to a 1-year contract extension earlier this year. If he is to stick around, or land on the practice squad, Hassenauer will have to show some versatility at guard, as it is well-documented the Steelers expect this flexibility from their offensive linemen.
It’s a new era at center with the Steelers, and all eyes, and pressure, are on Green to be the player the Steelers envision him to be. If he is that guy, the team will have found yet another world-class center. If he’s not, the search will continue, and they have the pieces to make it work until they find the next heart of the offensive line.