If you’re going to be critical of Chukwuma Okorafor this year, Zach Banner wants you to put on your uniform. That’s how Banner responded to those wondering if Okorafor can hold down the fort on Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside this season.
“Tell them to sign a contract if they can do it better,” Banner told reporters via Zoom. “Chuk is a hard worker. Love them to death. One of my closest friends on this team if not my closest. We both understand the pressures. As you keep stacking up years in the league, more and more responsibilities are put on your shoulders and on your back. He’s just like everyone else in the room. We welcome that pressure.”
For Okorafor, 2021 will be as pressure-packed as any year. He’s expected to shift over to left tackle, the place where he started and played throughout college. It’s arguably his most comfortable spot, though he started 15 games at right tackle last year after Banner went down with a torn ACL.
Like Banner did this offseason, Okorafor will be looking for a payday on the other side of this year. He’s entering the last year of his rookie contract. If he plays well, he could earn some serious money. The value between left and right tackles may have blurred, but the pay hasn’t. The top paid offensive tackles in football are almost all on the left side. Only two right tackles in football currently have a contract worth $14+ million per year. Twelve left tackles get paid that much.
Even with a good season, Okorafor is unlikely to join that bunch. But if he plays well, he could receive a serious payday from Pittsburgh or another team. The Steelers are projected to have the cap space to pay up for Okorafor and are searching for a long-term answer at left tackle now that Alejandro Villanueva is gone.
The left side may also help mitigate some of Okorafor’s average run blocking. Most offenses, including the Steelers’, are right-handed running teams. So having Banner — the better run blocker — on the right side and Okorafor on the left feels like the best fit for both of them. Banner is confident they’ll both get the job done.