I want to take a moment before another game is played to talk about Jerald Hawkins, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ second-year tackle, whom they drafted as an underclassman in the fourth round out of LSU in last year’s draft. I want to talk about him because he deserves a word of praise as he likely heads back to the bench.
If you follow me on Twitter, you probably recently saw me describe the Marcus Gilbert suspension as a blessing in disguise for Hawkins. While it was a golden opportunity for Chris Hubbard, the second-year player needed that opportunity just as much, or more.
Over the course of the first 10 games of the season, the young tackle spent all of his time on the inactive list. With Gilbert on the suspended list, however, he was given the reins to take over the backup tackle job. At the same time, he inherited Hubbard’s role as the tackle-eligible option.
Coinciding with frequent injuries for tight end Vance McDonald, there was ample opportunity for Hawkins to get on the field over the course of the past month. He logged over 30 snaps in that span, incrementally being given tougher assignments, and his play improved with each passing game, as well.
He even took one snap at left tackle when Alejandro Villanueva briefly exited the Ravens game on a third-down play that was not converted. Villanueva was able to return in time for the next offensive series.
But with Gilbert returning, Hubbard will slide back into his reserve tackle and tackle-eligible roles, and B.J. Finney, of course, will remain the top interior reserve, where he is currently practicing in place of Ramon Foster, who is in the concussion protocol. Hawkins could dress if Foster doesn’t play, but he would be unlikely to play. And if Matt Feiler is still on the roster, he would probably be the one to dress because of his ability to play inside.
The point is, Hawkins was handed an opportunity to establish something from which to build upon from next year, and which essentially salvaged his second season, in my opinion. He struggled through much of the spring, and then into training camp, and had an up-and-down preseason.
He had a minor injury to overcome to start the regular season, but even after that, the Steelers were still dressing Feiler over Hawkins. It was only after the bye week, seemingly, that the two flipped spots in the hierarchy.
Considering the likelihood that Hubbard will be able to cash in during free agency in 2018 as he hits his unrestricted year, it is all the more important that Hawkins is able to show something, as he figures to be in the running for the backup tackle job in 2018.