It’s not really something that is being discussed very much just yet, but the truth is that the Pittsburgh Steelers are heading into the 2018 season with a pretty big question mark at a spot that has proven to be pretty important in recent years. It’s not a starting job, but has accounted for a lot of starts over a long period of time.
I’m talking about the swing tackle position, which has most recently been occupied by Chris Hubbard. The four-year veteran started the majority of the 2017 season at right tackle while starter Marcus Gilbert wrestled with injuries and then was hit with a four-game suspension in the season half of the season.
Hubbard ended up playing quite well, proving himself capable of earning a contract worthy of a starter. And he found that contract with the Cleveland Browns. Now that he is in another uniform, the Steelers will have to turn to another option, which will most likely be the unproven third-year tackle Jerald Hawkins.
A fourth-round pick in 2016 as an underclassman out of LSU, Hawkins spent his rookie season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury and then struggled to impress through his second offseason. He made the roster but spent the first half of the season inactive. Even with Gilbert missing games, they chose to dress Matt Feiler over him as the swing tackle option even though he had been playing at guard.
He did manage to earn the coaches’ trust in the second half of the season and dressed as the swing tackle while Gilbert served his suspension, but he did not have to play much at tackle. They did get him involved as a tackle-eligible, which is a means that the team has used for the past six years of getting younger and more inexperienced linemen some opportunities.
Gilbert missed nine starts last season, and three the year before, which Hubbard also started. Alejandro Villanueva was the swing tackle prior to that in 2015, and ended up starting 10 games during the regular season at left tackle after Kelvin Beachum went down. Mike Adams started for four games in place of Gilbert during the 2014 season, while he was benched in favor of Beachum four games into the previous season.
I could keep going backward to point out just how important the backup tackle position has been over the years, and at the moment heading into the 2018 season with Hawkins as the option is the least experienced they have been there in a while. Even in 2016, Ryan Harris was supposed to be the backup before he was injured.
It’s fortunate that Villanueva has been healthy since he has entered the starting lineup, but how long will that hold? History suggests we will be seeing Hawkins, or whoever the swing tackle ends up being, start more than a game or two this year. Let’s hope he’s up for it. It’s time for him to prove himself.