By Jeremy Hritz
Wow, this is going to take a while, and where do I begin.
Let’s start at left tackle, where the Steelers are in pretty good position for many years to come it seems as the result of the emergence of Dan Moore out of Texas A&M. Moore began the year as the starter and held on to the position ever since. There was speculation that once Zach Banner got healthy that Chuks Okorafor would kick over to the left side, but that never materialized. While Moore was far from perfect and struggled at times with speedy edge rushers, he also flashed moments of brilliance, such as games against Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns in which he held his own against a player of elite talent. The thinking is that if Moore was able to adapt as much as he did as a rookie, the strides he should be able to make in an offseason in terms of strength and conditioning and knowledge of the offense and blocking schemes, should be impactful. If he does grow and develop, left tackle could be a position of strength in 2022.
At left guard, one would assume that Kevin Dotson would be given another opportunity as the starter following an OK year before he was injured and missed several games through the end of the season. Prior to the start of the season, there was apparently concern within the Steelers organization about Dotson’s preparedness and conditioning. While that was never confirmed, it always hung out there, even though Dotson was the starter for the majority of the season. Dotson was better in pass protection than against the run, though it was believed it would be the reverse. More is expected from Dotson, and year #3 will more than likely be a make or break year for him. If he does not play well, he will be nothing more than a backup, and because of such uncertainty, you have to wonder if the Steelers are dead set on him returning as the starter next season. What doesn’t help is that the same uncertainty exists on the other side at right guard.
Center was the worst position for the offensive line for the Steelers in 2021, and Kendrick Green was at the heart of such a performance. While all of the blame should not be placed on Green, as he was thrust into the fire with the highest of expectations, with very minimal experience at playing center at Illinois. Green was often overpowered, confused, and out of position, putting Ben Roethlisberger in harm’s way, and providing clear lanes to defenders to tackle Najee Harris. Factor in troubles getting clean snaps to the quarterback, and it was one of the most error-littered performances by a center in Pittsburgh Steelers history. This is not to say that Green cannot rebound and become a quality offensive lineman in the NFL, but his rookie campaign is absolutely one to forget.
As a result of his struggles, Green will be given a look at the guard positions next season, and his next snap at center will probably only come as the result of an injury and the team being in need. Though only a third round selection, Green may be an example of reaching for a player and overvaluing a player’s talents. This is an important offseason for him, as he must get stronger, more physical, and more familiar with the intricacies and calls of an NFL offensive lineman, and his performance in training camp and during the preseason will be one to watch very closely. Green has nowhere to go but up after 2021, and the expectations for him are very low, setting the stage for him to prove everyone wrong. If anything, the Steelers learned, albeit the hard way, they are in desperate need of a starting-caliber center.
At right guard, Trai Turner will vacate the position and become an Unrestricted Free Agent, and the team will not make an effort to re-sign him. He served his purpose as a one-year fill in and played at an average level, but the Steelers will be looking to upgrade at the position.
Right tackle was manned by Okorafor this year in his 4th year as a Steeler, and he will now enter free agency. Though he was not stellar, he was steady and healthy, and at only 24 years old, the Steelers should make an effort to re-sign him to a multi-year deal on the cheap. With so many holes on this team, with Okorafor providing some stability and as a young-still-developing player, it just makes sense to sign him. Okorafor has improved every season, and while he isn’t the most physical or aggressive, there is something to be said for his knowledge of the organization, the offensive system, and his teammates. The Steelers should be able to get an economical multi-year deal done with Okorafor which won’t exhaust too much cap space and will allow them to pursue other free agents of need.
Steelers OL Depth
In terms of Zach Banner, he is signed through the 2022 season, but he has been oft-injured, and even when healthy, he has not gotten any playing time. Even when injury hit the unit, he was not called upon, and I believe this tells you everything you need to know about how the coaching staff views Banner. A first-class human being, and a generally funny dude, it will be hard parting ways, but I envision Banner being cut this offseason. With his departure, the team will need to make a minor addition in terms of tackle depth, and no, that player is not Chaz Green.
The other noteworthy offensive linemen to mention here are Joe Haeg, John Leglue, and JC Hassenauer. Haeg and Leglue are both signed with the team for 2022 and will provide quality depth, while Hassenauer is a free agent. All three played well considering the conditions and being thrown into the lineup with minimal notice. The chaos and questions at center make it an almost guarantee that Hassenauer is re-signed in the event they don’t upgrade in the offseason, or in the event there is an injury during the 2022 season.
The OL Verdict
Overall, the Steelers are OK at the tackle positions, while simply a mess on the interior. While Dotson will more than likely get the start at left guard next season, the Steelers are on the hunt for a new inside trinity at left guard, center, and right guard. This is a lot of new pieces to plug in, which makes me think they will hold tight with Dotson and pursue a center and a right guard, all while keeping their options open in terms of bettering depth through free agency, as well as undrafted rookie free agents.
Bet on it that the Steelers draft 1, if not 2 offensive linemen in the first three rounds.