The Pittsburgh Steelers took the longitudinal approach to roster building in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. They use their first of two picks in the round on Mason Rudolph, a quarterback on whom they had a first-round grade, even though they intend to have Ben Roethlisberger around for at least a few more seasons.
But the other third-round pick was a long-term option as well. While offensive tackle depth was desired (though not necessarily needed) following the departure of Chris Hubbard in free agency, the Steelers really liked what they saw in Western Michigan product Chukwuma Okorafor.
Jerald Hawkins was supposed to be the swing tackle replacing Hubbard in 2018, but an injury in OTAs shelved him early on, so Okorafor was immediately placed in a bigger role. While it was Matt Feiler who started in place of Marcus Gilbert during his injuries, Okorafor was the one who dressed as the swing tackle when Gilbert was healthy.
That was in part because the team also used him as a tackle-eligible tight end, something that he did to the tune of several dozen snaps over the course of the year. Feiler was also injured for one game that he was supposed to start, which the rookie had to start instead.
“After the preseason games and after playing a little and also playing against Denver, I always feel like I can play here”, Okorafor told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Hopefully for a long time”.
The 21-year-old could indeed have a long future ahead of him, and in a prominent role. Even though the Steelers don’t seem likely to release Gilbert this offseason, the veteran only has one year left on his contract. It’s quite conceivable that Okorafor could be starting in his place by then, if not sooner.
Of course, he would have to prove that he is capable of doing so, and he would also have to leapfrog Feiler, who played well above expectations, especially considering the fact that he had spent most of the past two years working at guard, and even center a bit in 2018.
Gilbert, entering his ninth season, just turned 31 years old and is the second-oldest lineman behind left guard Ramon Foster. Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle, however, is also 30 years old and will turn 31 during the 2019 season.
With starters about a decade older than him, it’s likely that there will be an opportunity at some point within the next few years. Villanueva has less burn on his tread than most players his age due to his coming in late, but Gilbert has been unable to complete a full season for a while now. Which is why Villanueva is going to Pro Bowls and Gilbert is not.