Versatility is a blessing and a curse. As a young player without an established role, it helps you stick around. But once you have your foot in the door, your flexibility makes it difficult for you to find a home, and your coaches are more reluctant to let you settle into one.
This is an issue especially for offensive linemen, with backups almost required to play at least two positions, and ideally up to four or five, even six if you count the tackle-eligible role to be among them. If so, then include third-year Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Matt Feiler among the six-tool players, who has at practiced at all six of those spots.
Feiler is entering his sixth training camp, and fifth with the Steelers, but it should be the first time that he actually gets the opportunity to focus on playing tackle, specifically right tackle, as he leads the pack in a competition for the starting job.
With Marcus Gilbert missing most of last season with a number of injuries, Feiler started 10 of the 11 games he missed, and played well enough that it helped the team make the decision to trade Gilbert at the start of the new league year.
But he’s not the only younger tackle. There is one much younger, in fact, in 2018 third-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor, against whom he is competing. Jerald Hawkins and Zach Banner could also be in the mix. But none of them before have had to deal with the switching around that Feiler is experiencing the benefit of being free of this year.
If you look over Alex Kozora’s training camp notes through the years, you will see that he frequently noted Feiler playing a lot of guard, especially over the past two to three years. He even received a lot of work playing center in 2018, a position that he had never previously played.
In his first preseason, with the Houston Texans, he did play exclusively at tackle. He saw 20 snaps at tackle the following year with the Steelers in comparison to nine at guard, but he also played 31 snaps as a tackle-eligible, still as largely a non-factor.
2016 was when he began to gain steam, playing 112 snaps in all. 80 came at right guard, 32 at right tackle. Then 2017. 182 snaps. 90 at left guard. 92 at right guard. Nothing at tackle at all. Last year, again, nothing at tackle at all. In 133 preseason snaps, he logged 108 at left guard and 25 at center.
That’s right, the two seasons in which he got playing time at tackle, and dressed as a game-day tackle, he didn’t play tackle at all in the preseason, and in fact spent the vast majority of his time playing inside.
Similar to Chris Hubbard, perhaps, now that he has the time to settle into the right tackle position, he may blossom even further than he already has, no longer limited by the versatility that frankly is the reason he was able to stick around long enough to finally make the 53-man roster in his fourth offseason in 2017.