The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: The Steelers’ starting tackle tandem will be recognized as top-five by the end of the 2019 season.
Explanation: Working on two consecutive seasons ending in a Pro Bowl, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is now being recognized for his quality of play, which has improved in consistency with every season. Marcus Gilbert was a top-five player at his position when he was healthy, but that wasn’t often enough, so the team is looking for its next right tackle between Matt Feiler, Chukwuma Okorafor, and Jerald Hawkins, and possibly Zach Banner as well.
This question is obviously a lot more about whoever starts at right tackle than it is about Villanueva, who can already be argued to be a top-five left tackle in the NFL right now. Particularly in pass protection, he allowed among the fewest pressures per snap in pass protection last season. So one can claim that answers half of the statement right there.
In order to have a top-five tackle tandem, you don’t have to have a top-five left tackle and a top-five right tackle. They just have to be one of the top five pairs, when taken together, which could be top-10 individually.
Feiler could easily aspire to that based on how he performed, essentially coming off the bench, last year. And if somebody else starts over him, that will only mean that the position will be even stronger, because it will have been earned through skill.
Before we go any further, let’s back up for a moment and consider where Villanueva really is in the left tackle hierarchy. And the potential effect that the loss of Mike Munchak could have. One issue for him over his career has been his consistency, so we can’t safely project a steady upward trend. We don’t even know if he will be good enough in 2019 to help vault their pair into the top-five discussion.
And as for the right tackle spot, this is a position that has risen significantly around the league in recent years. You can no longer get by with a ‘decent’ player over there, which is about as much as we can say to describe any of the contenders for the job for the Steelers right now. I think it’s asking too much to suggest they will be in this conversation so quickly. Feiler and Okorafor did well last season relative to their circumstances, but not necessarily to the level that you would want for a long-term starter.