Since the Pittsburgh Steelers acquired Mike Munchak to the time that he parted for the Denver Broncos earlier this offseason, the team only used three draft picks on offensive linemen. The first and lowest of the three was Wesley Johnson, a do-everything guy who ultimately found a home at center.
Johnson was a fifth-round pick. Their most recent selection under Munchak was 2018 third-round selection Chukwuma Okorafor, who enters year two as the swing tackle, presumably, after performing above the line during his rookie season. The man in between was 2016 fourth-round pick Jerald Hawkins, who had little luck in his professional career.
A shoulder injury suffered early in the preseason of his rookie year shelved him on injured reserve. He did play in 2017, the only year he would get on the field, emerging as the swing tackle in the second half of the year after Marcus Gilbert was injured and Chris Hubbard pressed into a starting role. He also played as a tackle-eligible.
But another season-ending injury robbed him of the 2018 season in OTAs, just as he was set to become the number three tackle. One has to wonder if he ever fully recovered from that injury, because he struggled throughout the preseason, and it became clear that he was not going to make the 53-man roster this time.
But the Steelers were able to get something for him, swapping late-round picks in 2021 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the talented tackle. Can a fresh start and a greater opportunity to contribute help him get his career back on track as he closes in on the end of his rookie contract?
I should hope so, because if you’ve ever heard Hawkins talk, you can tell what sort of person he is, and he certainly deserves the opportunity. At the very least, he deserves a chance to play while healthy, which has obviously been an issue. He has either been injured or recovering from injury for nearly his entire professional career, and he had an injury in college as well.
Hawkins is of course the second offensive lineman that the Steelers have traded this offseason, the previous being Gilbert himself, for whom they received a late sixth-round pick. That selection ultimately turned into Ulysees Gilbert III, who at least for now has made the team among the inside linebackers.
That just goes to show how deep the Steelers had been along the offensive line, a testament to both scouting and coaching, that they were able to gain resources not once but twice while maintaining the core strength of their unit, prepared with replacement parts ready to step up, while shaving off money against the salary cap all the while.
That said, let’s hope for the best for Hawkins. He played at LSU, so hopefully at least the Florida weather will be better suited to him.