Steelers Gain Clarity, Lose Flexibility After Ryan Harris’ Retirement

It may not exactly have been what they wanted, but the Pittsburgh Steelers did get some clarity following the retirement of veteran offensive tackle Ryan Harris—at the very least, of who they will have to work with heading into this offseason.

The Steelers know who their starting tackles will be. Harris entered last season as their swing tackle, but the truth is that he was not going to have the easiest time imaginable even making their 53-man roster this season, especially given his lack of versatility for a depth player after he failed to win a starting job.

Currently, Pittsburgh should expect to have at least second-year Jerald Hawkins and fourth-year Chris Hubbard as tackle-capable players on their 53-man roster in 2017. Brian Mihalik, who like Alejandro Villanueva has been a conversion project, is also a possibility and he spent time on the 53-man roster last year as well.

Ideally Harris would have gone to training camp with the Steelers to provide them a wider variety of options, whether or not he actually made the 53-man roster, and also to provide some insurance against injury at the position, but that was not to be. And the Steelers could certainly use some injury insurance.

After playing well in training camp and in the preseason, Hawkins ended up spending his rookie year on injured reserve. Harris barely got to play after he had to fill in due to injury before he also suffered a season-ending injury. And let’s not forget that Villanueva only started due to injury in 2015.

But while we’re on the topic of Villanueva, I would like to cite his 2015 season as the reason that I do not believe the Steelers are going to change much if anything about their strategy at the position relating to Harris’ decision to retire, which is quite possibly something they were aware was a distinct possibility, if not for a while, then at least in recent days, and almost assuredly when they applied the restricted tender on Hubbard.

Also Mike Adams was a marginal factor in 2015—a back injury prevented him from even ever coming off the Physically Unable to Perform List—the reality is that the Steelers had no issue taking Villanueva into the 2015 season as their backup swing tackle. He is a player who had not even been playing the position of tackle for a year by that point.

I think that should allay some of the fears that some might have about the notion of the team heading into the 2017 season with Hawkins and Hubbard and perhaps Mihalik as their options at the backup tackle positions, regardless of what Villanueva may have turned into since then.

I will confess that I am bullish on Hawkins’ future—but then so are his coaches and his teammates, and we have already seen him play well in the preseason, better than Villanueva or Beachum or really any lineman since Maurkice Pouncey looked from the get-go. It’s a very small sample size, of course, but I think it was enough to whet the Steelers’ appetite.

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