Three men enter. Only one can start. That’s how new offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett framed the battle for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting right tackle gig.
Speaking to the media at the start of the team’s three day mandatory minicamp, Sarrett highlighted three names who are being given an opportunity to fill that role: Matt Feiler, who started ten games there last season, Chukwuma Okorafor, who made a spot start against Denver when Feiler was hurt, and Jerald Hawkins, who is looking to stay healthy after spending two of three seasons on injured reserve.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Brian Batko has the quote from Sarrett.
Steelers OL coach Shaun Sarrett said he likes the competition of Matt Feiler, Chuks Okorafor, Jerald Hawkins at RT. "It’s not something that’s set in stone yet. All three of them know it, and all three of them are looking forward to getting to training camp and getting after it."
— Brian Batko (@BrianBatko) June 11, 2019
It’s unclear who is running with the one’s right now, there appears to be a rotation, though Feiler is likely to get the nod at the start of training camp. He’s the veteran with the most experience and to be fair to him, played well in relief of Marcus Gilbert last season.
But Okorafor was drafted in the third round last season for a reason. He was able to spend last year largely sitting and watching, aside from that Broncos’ game and work as a 6th offensive linemen. He’s the better athlete of the two with a higher ceiling. He’ll have to show more strength and physicality as a run blocker, two of Feiler’s top traits.
Hawkins impressed early in his career, looking like a steal in training camp of his rookie year. But a shoulder injury sent him to IR. He stayed healthy in 2017 but was low on the depth chart, logging only 47 snaps. Feiler actually played more that year, 75 snaps, thanks to starting in the regular season finale versus Cleveland. Chris Hubbard’s absence seemed to open the door last offseason but Hawkins suffered a torn quad, reverting back to IR. To his credit, he’s shown a positive attitude despite all the adversity.
Of course, Sarrett didn’t seem to include Derwin Gray or Zach Banner into that group. Gray was drafted in the 7th round of this year’s draft but seems to have a much better chance making the practice squad than 53. Banner was a mid-camp add last season and somewhat surprisingly made the 53, sticking the entire season. Though it seems he’s done well to get his weight down, he’ll battle to just make the roster.
While the Week One starter is unclear at the moment, the competition is a good thing. It’ll bring the best out in all three players. The losers of the battle will give them excellent depth. Okorafor can backup at either tackle spot and work as the extra linemen. Ditto Hawkins. Feiler has logged snaps at every position but left tackle though the blindside is his natural position, playing there in college.
As Dave Bryan and I mentioned on today’s The Terrible Podcast, if Hawkins has the bronze medal on the podium, he could become a trade candidate. He’s entering the final year of his deal and could go elsewhere if he realizes there isn’t a chance for future playing time in Pittsburgh. He’ll have to play well this preseason to earn value, his limited time healthy suggests that’s possible, but it’s a league starving for offensive line help. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him flipped for a 6th round pick at final countdowns. just as the team has done with the likes of Sammie Coates and Ross Cockrell in recent years.