Over the course of the 2019 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a two-time Pro Bowler at left tackle in Alejandro Villanueva while starting Matt Feiler on the opposite side, who started 10 games there the previous season. Their reserves were 2018 third-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, a former fourth-rounder who was brought in during training camp in 2019.
Villanueva, Feiler, and Banner will all be unrestricted free agents in 2021, should they not receive extensions between now and the start of the 2020 season (Feiler and Banner were both restricted free agents; Feiler was tendered, while Banner received a one-year deal for an amount lower than the tender).
In spite of the looming decisions that must be made at the position, and their potential depth behind the rostered players almost entirely dried up, the Steelers went through the 2020 NFL Draft without addressing the position, their only selection being the guard-only Kevin Dotson.
Obviously the team only had six draft choices, but tackle was clearly an option on the board, even early, with some hoping a guy like Ezra Cleveland would be available for the pick. So what made Pittsburgh confident they could bypass the position this year?
Confidence in their young tackles, Okorafor and Banner, as Mike Tomlin told reporters when asked. Okorafor has made two starts at right tackle over the course of his first two seasons, during which he held up serviceably at worst. Last season, Banner played over 200 snaps as the tackle-eligible tight end and acquitted himself well in a primarily run-blocking capacity.
Does the development of Chuks Okorafor and Zach Banner give the Steelers enough confidence that they didn’t need to prioritize offensive tackles in the draft?
— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) April 25, 2020
How the dominoes fall by 2021 remains to be seen. Villanueva will be entering his age-33 season next year, and he is on a bargain contract now. The question is whether or not they can afford him, and if it makes sense to commit premium money to an ‘old’ player at the position.
Feiler, meanwhile, could potentially be moving to guard in 2020, which would mean one of Banner and Okorafor would have to be up to speed at a starter capacity this Autumn. Maybe at least one of them will be. That’s what the Steelers believe they will see.
Maybe even both of them will emerge. It’s not inconceivable that Pittsburgh’s starting tackles in 2021 consists of Okorafor at left tackle and Banner at right tackle. Of course, they would be in serious need of depth if that happens to be the case by that point.
Still, it would be interesting to know what the team’s draft board at the position looked like. This was one of the deepest classes for tackle in years, and they came out of it empty-handed. Their options were limited, but will their gamble, betting on their in-house options, pay off?