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2019 Pre-Training Camp Roster Review: Tackle

The last time that we took a look back at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster in review, it was weeks before the 2019 NFL Draft took place. It would be safe to say that quite a bit has changed since then, and the changes apply to almost every position on the roster, some major changes, some minor.

We are closing in on the opening of the Steelers’ several weeks of training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, however, so it would be a good time to pause and take stock of where the team stands at each position since the build-up to the draft as we head into the most critical process of the offseason.

Position: Tackle

Total Positional Figure: 7

Additions: 2

Deletions: 1

Players Retained:

Alejandro Villanueva: Following the team’s decision to trade Marcus Gilbert in March, Villanueva is the team’s most experienced tackle, and the only one in a while who has been to a Pro Bowl. He is coming off his second appearance in as many years, and his most consistent season to date, where he was particularly strong in pass protection.

Matt Feiler: With Gilbert missing most of last season, Feiler was the primary beneficiary, starting 10 games and playing well in his place. For the time being, he is the front-runner for the right tackle position, but he is being challenged by one or more players. If he doesn’t win the job, he can serve as an interior reserve as well.

Chukwuma Okorafor: Okorafor is Feiler’s primary competition. A 2018 third-round pick, not many even knew his name, but he came in and performed beyond expectations, which were admittedly low for a player still rather new to the sport. He has the most upside of any tackle on the roster short of Villanueva, so there is some motivation to see him win.

Jerald Hawkins: A 2016 fourth-round pick, Hawkins is ostensibly in the competition as well but I don’t think he has logged any time yet with the starters. He of course spent the 2018 season on injured reserve with a quad injury he suffered in OTAs last year. He told reporters that he’s still not 100 percent.

Zach Banner: Banner was picked up in training camp last year and the giant 6’8”, 350-pound monster showed enough potential to stick on the 53-man roster all year. But he has to show a lot of growth this year to remain there.

Players Added:

Derwin Gray: A rookie seventh-round pick, Gray played tackle in college but has already worked at all four line positions outside of center in the spring. His key to a roster spot will be versatility.

Damian Prince: Prince was the other tackle at Maryland with Gray. A rookie minicamp invitee, he impressed enough that the team released 2018 practice squad player R.J. Prince to make room for him, but he still has a long way to go.

Players Lost:

R.J. Prince: As just mentioned, Prince was released after rookie minicamp after the other Prince obviously outperformed him. coincidentally, he was a rookie minicamp invitee last year and made the roster that way, replacing fellow rookie undrafted free agent tackle Ikenna Nwokeji. He ended up spending the 2018 season on the practice squad and being spoken of by the coaches positively.

Notes and Camp Outlook: 

With left tackle set in stone, all the attention will be on the right side, where it looks to boil down to a competition between Feiler and Okorafor. Feiler showed competence last year, so I don’t think there should be much worry about the position overall. If Okorafor wins, that should mean that they expect him to be an improvement over what they already had.

Beyond the starting job, however, there are further implications for the roster. Hawkins and Banner are both competing to make the team, as is Gray. Hawkins and Gray are being flexed out to be four-position players. Feiler is a five-position player, at least in theory, as he got some work at center last year.

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