One of the most common things you hear after every draft is that grades can’t be finished until at least three years after a pick has been made. So after submitting my grades for every Steelers’ pick in this year’s class, I’m going back and revisiting picks from three years ago and beyond made by Pittsburgh. That continues today with second of the team’s two third-round picks in 2018, offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor out of Western Michigan.
I tweaked my exercise for grading this year’s draft to look at and give letter grades to past picks, based on five specific ways to view the pick (listed below), before taking all that analysis and combining it into a final letter grade. Those five viewpoints comprise much of what goes into the draft grades consumed by so many every year after the draft.
Steelers’ Career: What did the player contribute to the team that drafted him?
NFL Career: Did the player make the pick look better in hindsight after leaving Pittsburgh?
Pick Value: Did the player outperform his draft slot? Did he fail to live up to the pick used on him?
Positional Value: Was the player the best player remaining at his specific position in the draft?
Other Options: Did any players go during the next round that were better selections?
Overall Grade: A final mark to denote whether the selection was an overall positive one, or one better spent elsewhere.
Just like when grading a current year’s draft, each factor in a retrospective doesn’t apply evenly to every pick made. For example, a first round selection should have a longer and more impactful career, whereas a late-round pick only needs a few seasons in a limited role to live up to his draft slot.
Some factors are universal, though. Whether picked first overall or 259th, there will always be other options on the board to compare the player to, and steals and reaches can come from any place in the draft.
Round 3, Pick 28: Chukwuma Okorafor, OT, Western Michigan
STEELERS & NFL CAREER: C
Just like fellow 2018 third-round pick Mason Rudolph, re-graded earlier this week, Okorafor wasn’t Pittsburgh’s pick to be an instantaneous starter. Big Alejandro Villanueva held down the left side of the line, and Marcus Gilbert the right. Okorafor was drafted as someone who could grow into a starting role when the need arose down the line. Specifically, as insurance for Gilbert, who couldn’t stay healthy.
Okorafor’s chance finally came in 2020, when an injury sidelined Zach Banner and opened up the right tackle job. His performance underwhelmed, as he led all Steeler linemen in penalties (five) and ranked among the worst tackles in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. Okorafor matched Matt Feiler for the team lead in sacks allowed, though the number was a lower 2.5 total as the team set a record by allowing only 14 sacks all season.
It hasn’t been an inspiring start to his career. He has failed to beat out Feiler and Banner (twice) for playing time, and was a gameday inactive all but one game in 2019. Pittsburgh trusted him to be the leading contender to start on Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side in 2021, so there’s something there. Thus far, he hasn’t shown it, though.
PICK VALUE: B-
Okorafor arrived a very raw player, with only a few years of football experience and having left college as a junior. As such, his learning curve was expected to be a longer one than typical, and there is more hope for him than a normal mid-round pick three years later that he can find another level to take his game to.
If Chuks does so and has an improved second season as a starter at tackle, it’s outstanding value for Pittsburgh here. Even getting two full seasons out of a tackle as a starter from the third round is pretty decent. If Okorafor can hold off fourth-round pick Dan Moore Jr. and stay the starter at left tackle all 17 games to complete that second season (and potentially play well enough to earn a third), this grade will only continue to go up.
POSITIONAL VALUE: A
By this point in the draft, Okorafor represented the best of the rest among tackles. Only one tackle taken after him — Tyrell Crosby (Detroit) — has had a season where he started double-digit games on either end of the line. Crosby’s performance is not far off from Okorafor’s, and his stats show penalty and sacks issues that also mirror Okorafor. There were other tackles who ascended to starting roles taken later, but all had to kick inside to guard to do so. So among tackles specifically, Okorafor represented the best player remaining when Pittsburgh took him.
OTHER OPTIONS: B+
There aren’t any misses so egregious that this pick is one of absolute regret given other names on the board at the time. Who stings most, though, is the lineman who went two picks later: Cappa to Tampa Bay. Cappa has become one of the better guards in football, and is the type of pick 32 of 32 teams want to make in the late third every year. He wasn’t needed to start immediately, but then again, neither was Okorafor.
Some of the other best players over the next 32 picks, like safety Jordan Whitehead and receiver Keke Coutee, made no sense given selections at those positions earlier in the draft. In a retrospective, though, you have to at least give thought to Whitehead as a better pick with how well he has played in Tampa. Kenny Young at linebacker (Baltimore), hybrid defender Kyzir White (L.A. Chargers) and Chris Herndon (New York Jets) are also players with upside. Cappa, though, is the only concrete upgrade over Okorafor.
OVERALL GRADE: C+
This hasn’t been an outright bad pick by the Steelers, and it hasn’t been an outright good pick. Getting a full season out of Okorafor as a starter, and having enough confidence to potentially entrust him with Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side this season, is recouping some serious value from a late third-rounder. Value that only skyrockets if Okorafor wins and retains the starting job beyond this season. And in reviewing the board that fell to them, there are not many alternatives (next 32 picks) that went on to definitively better careers thus far, overall and specifically at tackle.
The only thing bringing this grade down is Okorafor himself. He has had multiple opportunities to earn a place on the field, and lost out to Matt Feiler once and Zach Banner twice. His lone season as a starter came after an injury to Banner, and his performance in the audition was not good. It’s great to find a starter at tackle in the third, but that starter needs to play like it to make this pick a high-graded one. Given Okorafor’s background coming up, there is reason to be hopeful he takes a step forward this season, a year after getting his chance to see what weekly NFL action was like. This is his make-or-break year, though. Acing his 2021 earns him a starting spot (and much higher grade than C+), another 2020 gets him replaced by Moore Jr.