The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: At least one of Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor will be ready to start and play ‘above the line’ this season.
Explanation: Zach Banner was a fourth-round pick, now going into his fourth season. Chukwuma Okorafor was a third-round pick, going into his third. It’s not unreasonable to hold the belief that one of them might be able to be a starter. After all, both of the team’s current starters are former undrafted free agents who never made a 53-man roster before their mid-20s.
This is a very important question because it greatly expands the range of options that the Steelers have as it pertains to their starting offensive line. If neither Banner nor Okorafor are ready for a full-time role, then they may be forced to leave Matt Feiler there and rely upon Stefen Wisniewski to be a 16-game starter. It would be preferable if he could instead be the interior swing man as the only other player who can play center.
Fortunately, the answer should be yes. Banner got a lot of great experience playing tackle-eligible last year, and while the vast majority of that was in run blocking, it gave him that valuable in-game experience.
Neither of them blew the doors off of training camp, but neither did they play poorly in the preseason. It would be reasonable to expect continued growth from each, perhaps especially Okorafor, who is only 22.
While Okorafor has started two games to date in his career at right tackle (Banner hasn’t played a snap of tackle in-game in the past two years), the Steelers didn’t trust him enough to leave him to his own devices, frequently shifting protection to his side. And the fact that they chose to start him over Banner doesn’t say a lot about the latter.
The Steelers had a great history of developing linemen under Mike Munchak, but he isn’t here anymore. The first season under Shaun Sarrett in 2019 was the worst the line has seen since 2013, the year before Munchak arrived, so it’s hard to get excited about his developing a new starting right tackle with minimal in-game experience.