Back Of O-Line Room Emerging As Most Intriguing Low-Key Roster Battle

Arguably the most intriguing low-key battle for roster spots on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 90-man roster right now is taking place at the back end of the offensive line, where the team has a bevy of interesting candidates, perhaps the deepest group from one to 15 that they have ever had, based on potential and training camp work.

While the top seven positions are set, the two final roster spots—and it would be hard to keep fewer than nine, simply because of the available talent—remain very much up for grabs, and some interesting names may end up on the outside looking in.

The starting offensive line consists of Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, and David DeCastro, locked in left from right, with Matt Feiler the likely starter at right tackle. Chukwuma Okorafor is penciled in as his backup, while B.J. Finney will return for a fourth time to be the top interior reserve.

But who will be the number four tackle? Who will be the other interior reserve? For the moment, I think the player outside of the top seven who has made the strongest case for himself is Zach Banner, who in fairness was already the ninth lineman last season. He has played above the line this summer, and seems poised to end Jerald Hawkins’ tenure in Pittsburgh, sending rookies Derwin Gray and Damian Prince competing for a spot on the practice squad.

Then there is a trio of interior players who have made things interesting. Undrafted rookie Fred Johnson out of Florida has consistently run with the second-team group and nearly played wall-to-wall in the first preseason game. A massive guard at 6’7”, well north of 300 pounds, the team has even given him looks at both tackle spots, where he has not previously played.

Patrick Morris was undrafted a year ago and spent the season on the practice squad. He has slowly been emerging, so far just edging out AAF alumnus J.C. Hassenauer. With Pouncey and Finney both either not participating or leaving yesterday’s practice, he got the opportunity to run with the first-team at center.

The one player that I have not mentioned is Garrett Brumfield, the other undrafted free agent. Quite honestly, he has seemingly been consistently the last player mentioned, the last highlighted, the one consistently working with the third-team line. Perhaps that speaks as much to the depth of the overall group as to his actual abilities.

While there are still some kinks to work out with all of these young players, particularly those with limited reps or who are being flexed to unfamiliar positions, this is shaping up to be a very intriguing group.

Of course, the hope is that players such as Banner and Johnson never have to dress, because such an event would likely indicate that there is an injury among the top seven players. But should that issue arise—and it almost always does, to be frank—you want to have that depth available to you. After all, Feiler started the 2018 season as a healthy scratch.

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