After hours of speculation and reports that a talented Pittsburgh Steelers player had been put on the trading block, the trade has finally been confirmed. The deal in mention is of course, Marcus Gilbert heading to the Arizona Cardinals for a sixth-round pick. Gilbert joins many other former Steelers who have headed to Pittsburgh West in their 30s. Even with his age and injury concerns, Gilbert is still a very talented tackle when he can remain on the field. The Steelers may be shipping off a very talented player but despite this, their tackle depth is still in very good shape.
The Steelers are not dealing with uncharted waters as they prepare for life without their veteran tackle. Gilbert has played in just 12 of a possible 32 regular season games over the last two seasons. His absence has given the Steelers the ability to study what they have behind him and what they found was deemed confident enough to ship Gilbert to Arizona.
After missing 11 games this season, Gilbert’s absence led to the emergence of journeymen tackle Matt Feiler. A Pennsylvania native, Feiler found himself back home, starting 10 games this season as Pittsburgh’s right tackle. Despite a few rough patches, Feiler played better than anyone could have expected, perhaps being the catalyst in making Gilbert expendable. It was a true grind to the top for Feiler who went undrafted after the 2014 draft and spent two years (2015-2016) on the Steelers’ practice squad. Feiler’s play was almost as feel good as his story and for that he figures to walk into training camp as the front runner for the right tackle position.
Behind Feiler, stands the massive Chukwuma Okorafor. The massive 6’6, 320 lb rookie tackle was not expected to do much in 2018 but a rash of injuries changed his trajectory. As Gilbert and Feiler were each dealing with a respective injury, Okorafor was called upon to make his first career start at right tackle against the Broncos and Von Miller. While Okorafor did receive his fair share of help with Miller, his play left a breath of optimism. The Steelers’ brass was likely not as surprised with Okorafor’s maturity and play as the rest of the viewing audience. GM Kevin Colbert described Okorafor as having “very good upside, probably the most unique upside of this whole group (of rookies)” after last year’s draft. Now heading into his sophomore year, Okorafor will look to take another step in his progression.
The true wildcard out of the group of tackles is 2016 fourth round pick Jerald Hawkins. Hawkins was supposed to take over the role of backup swing tackle heading into last season but a season ending quadricep injury had other plans. An afterthought at this point, Hawkins has spent more time rehabbing injuries than on the field, as a shoulder injury also wiped out his rookie campaign. During his lone healthy season, Hawkins played 47 snaps at tackle and as an extra tight end. While he has missed two of the last three seasons, do not count out Hawkins yet as he was still a valuable SEC caliber tackle just three years ago.
It is also apparent that the Steelers have a soft spot for former USC tackle Zach Banner. Banner was signed by the Steelers in August 2018 and surprisingly made their 53-man roster despite being with the team for just under a month. While he did not play any snaps this season, Banner’s 6’6, 360 lb frame is intriguing to say the least. The Steelers’ decision to sign Banner to a future’s contract this January also speaks to their infatuation with his ability.
Though, Gilbert’s time in Pittsburgh has officially come to an end, the future is still very promising when observing the pupils behind him. Feiler is building off of a consistent body of work over his first year as a starter. Okorafor and Hawkins will compete for the opportunity to be the team’s swing tackle and Banner will also get another year of hands on coaching from a coaching staff that has been able to turn out polished linemen at ease.