The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t know that third-year offensive lineman Jerald Hawkins would suffer a season-ending quad injury during OTAs when they drafted Chukwuma Okorafor with their second of two picks in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. It wasn’t planned out with that unpredictability in mind.
But they knew that bringing Okorafor, he would be competing for that swing tackle job anyway. Now, they are pushing him to ensure that he has every opportunity to earn the position, since the only other options are career journeymen Jake Rodgers and Bryce Harris or Matt Feiler, who has developed into a quality interior player.
“Chuks, we drafted that guy for that reason”, offensive line coach Mike Munchak told reporters about the possibility of him moving into that swing tackle role. “Now the young guy gets a chance kind of like [Alejandro Villanueva] a few years ago. And last year, Chris Hubbard got the opportunity with [Marcus Gilbert] out. We’ve got a lot of time to work with him. Right now, that’s our guy going forward”.
To give a bit more context to what Munchak is referring to, Villanueva was given a huge opportunity in 2015. First, with Mike Adams dealing with a back injury all year, he ran second-team throughout the spring and earned the swing tackle job. Then five games into the year, Kelvin Beachum tore his ACL. Villanueva took over at left tackle and hasn’t missed many snaps since.
As for Hubbard, he initially took over the swing tackle role in 2016 after Ryan Harris, a veteran they signed in free agency, was injured. He started three games for Gilbert that year and earned the right to continue in that role in 2017, playing most of the season and earning a starter-worthy contract with the Cleveland Browns in free agency.
Okorafor was going to be given the chance to compete no matter what, but now he is being fast-tracked into his ultimate role of swing tackle. “It kinda seems like it is going that way”, he told reporters. “My job is just to learn everything I can and then see what happens in the fall”.
Munchak was also pleased with his newest and highest-pedigreed pupil to date. “He’s doing well”, he told reporters, though he added that “it’s a lot”. He praised the 20-year-old’s ability to adapt and to not get down when things don’t go well.
“The assignments are coming well to him”, he added. “He’s getting used to communicating with the other guys”. The ‘other guys’ most likely will primarily consist of the likes of B.J. Finney, Feiler, Rodgers, and perhaps undrafted rookie R.J. Prince as the second-team offensive line. The starters have not missed much time this spring, wanting to be together.