Chukwuma Okorafor suffered a labrum injury that he had surgically repaired following his rookie season in the offseason of 2019. During his first season, he served as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ gameday active swing tackle, even though when starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert went down, it was Matt Feiler, who had previously been an inactive, who entered the starting lineup.
Last Summer, an open competition was held for that starting job after Gilbert was traded. Feiler won, and Zach Banner served as the swing tackle. Okorafor did start one game when Feiler kicked inside to left guard, the team wanting to preserve Banner in his tackle-eligible role, and that was the only game of the season for which he dressed.
How did he go from dressing for every game to dressing for one? Was it just Banner’s own growth that resulted in him being passed over on the depth chart? Was it because he was still not 100 percent from the injury and subsequent surgery?
While speaking to reporters yesterday, he was asked a question in that vein. “I don’t want to make an excuse for last year in terms of it being a problem”, he said, “but there was a little pain last year, like if it’s during camp or anything, but it was tough for sure. But now I feel great”.
The third-year tackle, who sat out yesterday’s practice with what the team is hoping is a minor shoulder ailment, has been rotating with Banner during training camp with the first team at right tackle as the coaches decide between them which will be the more suitable starter, as they try to keep Feiler inside for the season.
Originally a third-round pick out of Western Michigan, Okorafor quickly showed himself to be ahead of his projected development as a rookie. The African-born lineman did not move to the United States until his teen years and adopted football late. On top of that, he declared for the draft as a true junior, so he was seen as a player with a lot of football ahead of them, and not a lot behind.
He did not make the sort of second-year progress that would have been hoped for. Okorafor may not use the labrum injury as a justification for that, but it’s certainly possible that it did play a role. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the opportunity to get a look at him in training camp this year, so we can only go by what the pool reporters have to say.
The Steelers seem to believe that they have at least tone starting-caliber tackle on the roster between him and Banner, if not two, so they don’t appear to be urgently concerned about the position, regardless of who wins. But if Okorafor wants the job, he would be advised not to miss too much time.