By Jeremy Hritz
The 2022 season began with several questions about the quality of the offensive line in terms of its ability to pass protect, run block, and flat out show that it could be an average unit. The expectations were not that high, but even with those expectations of mediocrity, the OL failed to produce, further weakening the confidence in the group to do its job.
However, just as it was a tale of two seasons for the team, the same applies to the offensive line.
In the second half of the year, the pass protection improved, but wasn’t perfect. And the run blocking, well, that became the group’s best feature, as they consistently got a push, and blew defenders off of the ball to open generous rushing lanes for the likes of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.
In totality, it was a mixed bag; however, there are reasons for optimism.
The Starting 5
Our analysis begins at the center position where Mason Cole took over for Kendrick Green (remember him?), and had a decent showing in his first season with the Steelers. Pro Football Focus rated Cole as the 12th best center in the NFL, and he showed consistency and intelligence, picking up the offense quickly, and showing an ability to recognize defenses and make calls for the protections for the group. Cole is not physically imposing, nor is he exceptionally athletic or strong. What he is, however, is slightly above average at both pass and run blocking, and able to deliver consistent results, something that made him a massive upgrade over Green from last season. The Steelers will rely on him as the starter again in 2023.
James Daniels joined the Steelers through free agency last offseason from the Chicago Bears, and his performance started out sluggishly. Hit with holding penalties early on and getting overpowered at times, there were concerns that the Steelers got a lemon. These concerns were quickly resolved, as he began to produce, though not dominate, and become a reliable blocker for the team. Ranked as the 24th best guard in the NFL by PFF, Daniels, while he played OK, did not live up to the expectations he came to the team with. He was described as a mauler and a physical blocker, and early in minicamp and training camp, he was described as a leader by veteran linemen. His early hiccups can be attributed to transitioning to a new team, and there is no reason not to believe that a full year in the Steelers system, and an entire offseason, will result in his adaptation and growth for 2023.
Dan Moore, the Steelers starting left tackle, was a beacon of optimism for fans heading into 2022. At the conclusion of the season, though, many were disappointed. Frequently allowing pressures and sacks, and committing false starts and holding penalties, Moore did not live up to the expectations from Steelers Nation in his second year. Ranked as the 61st best LT, there are questions as to whether or not Moore will retain his starting spot next season, or the team will look to improve the position in the draft. This is one of the primary questions of this offseason: what will the Steelers do at left tackle? There are two arguments here, and both are valid. One, Moore is only 24, and will turn 25 at the start of the season, and there is plenty of room for his growth. Remember, he was only a 4th round pick who was thrown into the starting lineup as a rookie, and he may of just taken a step back in year #2 before bursting forward in 2023. Others will argue that he is what his tape says: a player who flashes at times, but is inconsistent.
The best move at left tackle for the Steelers is not to get complacent, and plan for competition at the position heading into camp. I can’t foresee the team drafting a tackle in the first round, though the 2nd and rounds thereafter, is a possibility. The better approach is signing a cheap, yet proven effective left tackle in free agency who can provide mentorship to Moore, in addition to stepping into the lineup if needed.
I’m not ready to give up on Moore, and with the Steelers track record on being patient with players, I believe he will be the starting left tackle in 2023.
At left guard, Kevin Dotson started in his third year and was a mixed bag as well, with many of the same problems that Moore had. However, Dotson improved as the season wore on, especially in the domain of run blocking. Ranked as the 30th best guard by PFF, Dotson is going to be given every opportunity to be the starter again next season, but like the approach with Moore, the team will look to provide competition via later rounds in the draft or through free agency. Dotson does bring a level of physicality to his play, and was especially effective in his run blocking towards the end of the season. That should be enough to instill confidence in the coaching staff, but the team must be prepared in the event it doesn’t work out.
Right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor was signed to a 3-year deal this offseason, and he provided the only bit of continuity on the offensive line. Like the majority of the unit, Okorafor was OK: good at times, but too inconsistent. A better pass blocker than run blocker, Okorafor finished the season as the 64th best tackle in the NFL. Since the Steelers invested in Chuks long term, his starting position is safe, barring some catastrophic deterioration in his play. Still very young, Okorafor will only be 26 at the start of the season, and there is still upside to his potential.
Overall for the offensive line, the organization will either believe in this unit’s development and improvement the second half of the year and only look to upgrade depth and bring in competition this offseason. If they are dissatisfied by the output or have identified inconsistencies on tape from Moore that they don’t believe can be rectified, then they will target a player early in the draft who they believe can come in right away and start, or a veteran LT, though that will prove costly.
I believe the team will stand pat with their current starting 5 and continue to invest in their growth in the 2023 season. With that said, I do expect them to draft either a tackle or an interior linemen between rounds 2 and 4 for competition/depth, in addition to signing a veteran tackle to push Moore to step up his game. The only exception to this would be if the coaching staff is absolutely in love with a prospect in the draft and believes he could immediately come in and start and upgrade the line right away. The likelihood of this? Small, though anything is possible.
Will the offensive line get better as it grows together, or is it time to re-tool the unit and tweak some of the pieces? This will be a hotly debated question this offseason as it relates to your Pittsburgh Steelers.