By Jeremy Hritz
If there was one position that wore the crown of the absolute worst on the team in 2021, it was the offensive line. A rookie center and left tackle, a retread at right guard, an unproven left guard, and an average performance at right tackle all combined to create a group that was below the standard and a major reason for why the offense struggled as much as it did. Compounding the detriment were the lack of mobility from an aging quarterback, and a lack of identity as the team transitioned to a new offensive coordinator. The results were undeniable: a quarterback consistently hit and sacked and runners stood up in the backfield. It is mind-boggling to think that Najee Harris as a rookie rushed for 1200 yards behind this unit, and it is somewhat of a small miracle. With some additions this offseason, and through the development and growth of last year’s rookies, the Steelers offensive line should be an improved group. How much improved is the bigger question.
|Nate Gilliam||62||G||6-4||310||24||1||Wake Forest|
|Joe Haeg||71||T||6-6||298||29||7||North Dakota State|
|Dan Moore Jr.||65||OT||6-5||315||23||2||Texas A&M|
|Chukwuma Okorafor||76||OL||6-6||320||24||5||Western Michigan|
|Trent Scott||64||OL||6-5||320||28||5||Grambling State|
|Jordan Tucker||72||OT||6-6||340||23||R||North Carolina|
Beginning with the projected starting five for next season with left tackle, Dan Moore will begin his second year with much optimism and excitement that his best football is ahead of him. Moore performed admirably being thrust into the lineup as a 4th round draft pick, and with game experience, a year of coaching, and an offseason to grow, there is reason to believe in Moore’s game elevating.
At left guard, both Kevin Dotson and Kendrick Green will compete against each other for the starting spot. At first consideration, some may believe this is Dotson’s job to lose based on Green’s performance at center last season, but I suggest looking a bit more closely. First, Green played out of position at center, as a rookie, in the NFL. No easy feat. His natural position is at guard, where he is comfortable and can better utilize his athleticism on pulls and second-level blocks. Dotson on the other hand was called out by Kevin Colbert this offseason as a player who must show more, and if you remember back to last offseason, there were apparently concerns within the organization about his conditioning and knowledge of the playbook. Dotson suffered an ankle injury that resulted in him missing much of the season, and he has to show he can be available, or possibly he could be a surprise cut this camp.
At center, the job will be Mason Cole’s to lose, who comes over from Minnesota. At 6’5 298, he possesses the length that Green was missing last season and a veteran feel for the game; however, like Green was bullied and pushed into the backfield last season, Cole showed some susceptibility to being overpowered as well. Regardless, he will be an upgrade at the position over 2021.
At right guard is the stud of this group in newly signed James Daniels. Athletic, aggressive, and powerful, without even playing a snap, Daniels is the team’s best offensive lineman, and his presence alone upgrades the overall quality of the OL. His teammates have already reported that he has begun assuming a leadership role which reveals the type of impact he can have on the team.
Rounding out the starters at right tackle is Chukwuma Okorafor who is the most-seasoned Steelers starter. Re-signing with the team this offseason at 24 years old, the Steelers must believe there is still more upside and growth to be had from Okorafor, and they are counting on that for this season. While he hasn’t been spectacular, Okorafor has been steady, and even incremental improvement will pay dividends for this team.
The Other Guys
There are currently 15 offensive linemen on the 90 man offseason roster, but rest assured this number will be cut to 8 or 9 by the start of the season, with a player or two stashed on the practice squad. The front runners to make the team as depth have to be JC Hassenauer who filled in respectably at center at the conclusion of last season, Joe “The General” Haeg who also some time at both guard and tackle in 2021, and John Leglue who also acquired valuable experience last season via starts due to injury.
This trio is not a lock to make the roster, but they have the best shot. I am interested in seeing what the UDRFAs can do this training camp, and if they can possibly push any of the depth OL. Jake Dixon is a rookie tackle out of Duquesne who possesses hearts and smarts, along with a decent frame to add more mass, while Chris Owens has NCAA football pedigree playing at Alabama, and he will get looks at both guard and center. And finally, Jordan Tucker is a monster of a man at 6’6, 340, but he played at North Carolina on an offensive line that was ineffective in protecting Sam Howell.
2022 Looks Promising
There is no question this unit looks much better heading into a new season. The addition of Cole and Daniels, plus the growth and development of last year’s rookies, and competition at left guard, should result in a solid pass protecting and run blocking group.
The key word is should. Will they? We will begin learning at the end of July.