Could a player really go from spending two of his first three seasons on injured reserve, and sparsely playing in between, to becoming a starter in his fourth season—a contract year? That is what Jerald Hawkins is hoping to prove this year with the Pittsburgh Steelers now that the right tackle position is up for grabs.
That vacancy was created, of course, when the Steelers drafted long-time starter Marcus Gilbert, who spent most of the past two years on the shelf with injuries of his own, to the Arizona Cardinals for a draft pick in the sixth round later this month.
Hawkins, originally an underclassman fourth-round pick out of LSU in 2016, will be in the thick of the competition to succeed him in the starting lineup, but he will have plenty of adversaries, including Matt Feiler, who started 10 games there in 2018.
The Steelers also used a third-round pick on yet another underclassman last year, Chukwuma Okorafor, who had the best rookie season of any offensive lineman they have drafted since Gilbert in 2011. He had a strong camp and preseason and then performed serviceably as a tackle-eligible lineman, and started one game at right tackle as well.
With the offseason program finally ready to get underway, you know Hawkins is chomping at the bit to get the ball rolling once again, though it will still be about another month or so before any on-field work can begin during OTAs.
That is when he tore his quadriceps a year ago heading into his third season, during which he was expected to take over the swing tackle role. Had he stayed healthy, he would have been in Feiler’s position to get those starts.
“I would go out there right now, and I could”, he told Chris Adamski back in February, so you know he’s hungry to get things going. “I am definitely, 100 percent, going to be going all over it” once OTAs open following the draft.
In spite of the fact that he was sidelined with a season-ending injury literally all year, however, Hawkins continued to remain a fixture of the team, a presence at every meeting and every practice. The only way you knew he was injured was because he wasn’t participating on the field.
“I have been around everything; I want to be around as much as I possibly can”, he said all the way back in August. “I am always around dealing with the o-line, the offense. Honestly, they keep me in check, so I am loving it”.
He likely won’t get the first crack at working with the first-team group (that honor figures to got to Feiler), but Hawkins fully intends to give every effort to secure that job—and in doing so a new contract next year—for himself.