It seems as though rookie contract labor becomes more and more important year in and year out. That will especially be the case in 2021 given the impending salary cap concerns. Even if the NFL and NFLPA manage to work out a flat cap from this season, there will still be shortcomings for multiple reasons.
That’s a big deal, considering the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers have two current starters along the offensive line alone scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, namely left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and left guard Matt Feiler. It’s not immediately clear what the plan would be to replace Villanueva, but the 2020 NFL Draft did provide a plan for guard.
That would be to simply plug in 2020 fourth-round draft pick Kevin Dotson, who has started four games this year, two at right guard and two at left, including the final two games of the regular season. Feiler has been on the Reserve/Injured List for the past three weeks, but returned to practice earlier today and perhaps is on track to return for Sunday’s game.
Whether or not he would actually start of if the Steelers would make the decision to keep Dotson in the starting lineup is not immediately certain, but there is a very real possibility that they will leave the rookie where he is, all things considered.
Veteran right guard David DeCastro commented on seeing Feiler return to practice earlier today, as well as the job that Dotson has done filling in. “It’s great to have Matt back”, he said. “It’s great to have that depth back. Kevin, I haven’t seen a rookie play this well as an o-lineman since I’ve been here. It speaks highly to Kevin. I think he’s done an amazing job, and he’s going to have a heck of a career”.
He is the only rookie to have more than one start along the offensive line since the year DeCastro was drafted. Chukwuma Okorafor, a 2018 third-round pick, started one game that season. He has started 15 games this year after Zach Banner tore his ACL in the opener.
Dotson finished the regular season having logged more than 350 offensive snaps, and ultimately seeing playing time in eight games in total. He missed a few games during the season due to injury and to time spent dealing with Covid-19.
Though he came into the draft process with a reputation for being a run blocker, it is in pass protection where he has really shone. According to Pro Football Focus, he has only allowed a single pressure all season on more than 200 snaps in pass protection, the best performance among all qualifying guards.
Feiler is a fourth-year veteran who spent most of the past two seasons at right tackle. The Steelers moved him to left guard for the 2020 season in order to replace Ramon Foster, who retired after 11 seasons in the NFL, and drafted Dotson for depth, with an eye toward potentially starting down the road. That road may have already been reached.