It won’t be long now before the Pittsburgh Steelers begin rolling into Latrobe, PA to make Saint Vincent College their home away from home for several weeks as the summer winds down. That is when we know that training camp has begun, and with it the first deep breaths of the 2019 NFL season.
Everything that we have experienced up until now, from the re-signings, releases, and trades to the draft and all the way through OTAs and minicamp, has been but a preview, the setup, for what is to come next.
And so we too continue to preview what comes next in a series in which we will highlight several of the battles for roster spots and roles that we expect to see during our time observing in training camp and throughout the preseason.
Position: Right Tackle
Up for Grabs: Starting Job
In the Mix: Matt Feiler, Chukwuma Okorafor, Jerald Hawkins, Zach Banner
Though I have four names listed, I think the consensus expectation is that it will become boiled down to only two, if it hasn’t been already. The Steelers felt as though they had enough talent at the tackle position where they felt comfortable trading the recently oft-injured Marcus Gilbert this offseason as he entered the final year of his contract.
That talent primarily consisted of Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor, who combined to start 11 of the 16 games at right tackle last season. Admittedly, Feiler started 10 of them, but the interesting thing to note is that he was actually the healthy scratch for the games that Gilbert missed last year, Okorafor consistently dressing as the swing tackle. Both for Gilbert and then for Feiler, too.
With Gilbert gone, the Steelers will field a different starting lineup for the season opener for a reason other than injury for the first time since 2015, when Kelvin Beachum was in the final year of his deal with the team. From 2016 to 2018, they had a consistent five-man presence.
The four players to the left of right tackle still remain intact, and in fact under contract for at least the next two seasons, but a new starter will emerge inevitably now. So far, Feiler took the vast majority of the first-team snaps during the spring, but things should open up much more in training camp.
I would imagine that, barring somebody else getting thrown into the mix, the Steelers will probably have each of them start two preseason games and work with the first-team line. Feiler is the more experienced player, and performed ably in his 10 starts last year (otherwise he wouldn’t have been allowed to make 10 starts), but Okorafor, in his second season, is the more talented with more upside.
Okorafor will turn 22 just a short time into training camp. Feiler turned 27 exactly a week ago. It’s worth noting that the latter has inside capability, with respect to his long-term prospects. The team still controls him comfortably for the next two years as an exclusive rights free agent.