It won’t be long now before the Pittsburgh Steelers begin rolling into Latrobe, PA to make Saint Vincent College their home away from home for several weeks as the summer winds down. That is when we know that training camp has begun, and with it the first breaths of the 2018 NFL season.
Everything that we have experienced up until now, from the re-signings, releases, and restructures to the draft and all the way through OTAs and minicamp, has been but a preview, the setup, for what is to come next.
And so we too continue to preview what comes next in a series in which we will highlight several of the battles for roster spots and roles that we expect to see during our time observing in training camp and throughout the preseason.
Up for Grabs: Backup Job
In the Mix: Chukwuma Okorafor, Matt Feiler, Jake Rodgers, Bryce Harris
There are other names who can also factor into the battle for the swing tackle role this season—including players who are not currently on the roster—but I believe that the four players I named above as ‘in the mix’ for the job are the primary candidates.
There is an opening at the position because the Steelers lost their swing tackle in free agency in March, with fifth-year veteran Chris Hubbard signing a contract with the Cleveland Browns to take over at right tackle. Hubbard started the majority of the 2017 season, due to injury and suspension, at right tackle for Marcus Gilbert and played the best football of his career at a starter level.
The Steelers hoped that they had enough pieces in place to cobble together a solid competition for the role, but that included Jerald Hawkins, a third-year former fourth-round draft pick who spent time as the swing tackle during the second half of last season while Gilbert was suspended and Hubbard was in the starting lineup.
Prior to the second half of the season, however, it was actually Matt Feiler as the team’s swing tackle while Gilbert was injured. Though he came into the league as a tackle, he spent most of the past two years—including all of the 2017 offseason up to that point—at guard.
The hope is that rookie third-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor will demonstrate the capacity to earn the job quickly, right off the bat. He has only been playing tackle for about five years, including his three seasons with Western Michigan, however, so he is regarded as raw.
Jake Rodgers is a player that they have had around in recent years, and Bryce Harris is a veteran journeyman they signed after Hawkins’ injury. Neither has an impressive resume, but then again, the other candidates don’t either.
I do believe that if Okorafor struggles in the preseason, there is a very good chance the Steelers will make the attempt to acquire another tackle with experience, even via trade. They know more than most teams the value of a backup tackle, as one has had to start almost every year for the past decade.