The past couple of months have not been great for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line. Not only did they have center Maurkice Pouncey retire and left guard Matt Feiler leave in free agency, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva remains a free agent himself, and as of this writing, there are no indications that they will be able to bring him back.
While there might be a couple of in-house options—second-year Kevin Dotson could start at guard, and Zach Banner, who started the season opener at right tackle before tearing his ACL, was re-signed to a two-year deal—the options, and the margin for error, could be better.
The current projected starting lineup would include Banner at right tackle, with less than full game of starting experience, and Chukwuma Okorafor at left tackle, where he has never started in the NFL. the swing tackle while be veteran Joe Haeg, who, let’s say, could be better.
It’s no surprise that Pro Football Focus deemed the Steelers’ offensive tackles as being among the weakest position groups as we head into the 2021 NFL Draft. The good news is that this is a deep draft class for the position, though. Ben Linsey writes:
While some may point to Pittsburgh’s interior offensive line as a concern for the team, I’m more worried about the tackle position. Alejandro Villanueva has not been the most popular Steeler in Pittsburgh over the past several seasons, but he would be by far the safest tackle option on the team should he return. Villanueva graded out at 77.0 or higher in pass protection in each of his past five seasons as a starter.
For comparison, Chukwuma Okorafor earned a 62.5 pass-blocking grade and a 57.4 overall grade in his first season as a starter in 2020. Some combination of Okorafor, Zach Banner, Jarron Jones and Joe Haeg at tackle requires a lot of projection and could get ugly. The Steelers decided to bring Banner back after a knee injury ended his 2020 season just 59 snaps in, but the former USC Trojan has played just 85 snaps at tackle in four NFL seasons. At best, it’s an unproven unit.
Unproven it is, without question. But that doesn’t mean it’s without potential. And one can hope that new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, who served as the assistant to Shaun Sarrett for the past two seasons, could also work to enact some positive changes within the unit.
I no longer have any idea whether or not more time passing makes it more or less likely that Villanueva comes back to Pittsburgh. At this point, he may not even sign until after the draft, at which point he would no longer be factored into the compensatory pick formula (as of the last CBA, the window closes the Monday after the draft. It used to be June 1).