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: Chukwuma Okorafor will be a long-term starter for the Steelers.
Explanation: A third-round pick entering his third season, Okorafor is looking to lock down a starting job at right tackle this year, having previously started two games there due to injury in his first two seasons. If he wins this job, he could potentially move to left tackle as early as 2021 if Alejandro Villanueva leaves in free agency. There was some faint but unsubstantiated talk about him potentially playing guard, but until we see even a whiff of that, it’s not particularly relevant.
Okorafor was further along during his rookie season than anybody thought he would be. Zach Banner jumped in front of him last year, but that says a lot about Banner, and it also has to be remembered that Okorafor was injured. He had surgery this offseason. And Matt Feiler proved to be a very stout right tackle, so it’s not indignity that he didn’t beat out somebody who has been in the league for six years.
The bottom line is that Okorafor has the skill set to be a starter. He has the athleticism to play on the end, and he has the hand usage and footwork as well. If he can put it together consistently, there’s no reason to think he won’t win the starting right tackle job later this year, allowing Feiler to move to guard.
Even if he shows that he is capable of starting, that doesn’t guarantee that he will. If the Steelers like the Sefen Wisniewski and Feiler combo better than the Feiler and Okorafor combo, then that is what they will go with. And if he ‘loses’ another battle, then it’s hard to be optimistic about his future as a long-term prospect with reliable starting ability.
Of course there would be no shame if he simply becomes a very good backup, even as a former third-round pick. But we are looking at a tipping point along the offensive line. Villanueva and Feiler will be unrestricted free agents. Okorafor will be a free agent a year after that. They’re going to start drafting at this position, and Okorafor can easily get passed over as a result. The college tackle prospects are improving, as evidenced by this year’s class.