It’s no small feat to overcome the loss of more than half a dozen starters over the course of a single offseason. The Pittsburgh Steelers have no choice but to try their luck in that regard, with the offensive line and the secondary—two position groups that have recently been strengths—suffering the heaviest casualties.
These are essentially the only two areas of contention with respect to the starting lineup, other than punter. The line lost everyone from left tackle to center—Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, and Maurkice Pouncey—with the only definite as a replacement being Kevin Dotson at left tackle. Chukwuma Okorafor, a 16-game starter at right tackle last year, is penciled in at left, while the expectation is rookie third-rounder Kendrick Green will unseat his competition to start at center.
In the secondary, they said goodbye to two of their top three cornerbacks in Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton. They were able to retain their number four, Cameron Sutton, who will now be required to start, but the third cornerback role is the biggest question mark.
Earlier this offseason, Pro Football Focus took a stab at projecting each team’s starting lineup. They banked on second-year former undrafted free agent James Pierre stepping into the third cornerback role. Gregg Rosenthal recently attempted the same feat, and come up with third-year former third-round pick Justin Layne in that role.
Layne and Pierre are the only other cornerbacks behind Joe Haden and Sutton who return from last season’s 53-man roster with Nelson and Hilton now out of the building. Both of them received playing time on defense in 2020, but in limited capacities, and only due to injuries, or while resting players in the season finale or in late-fourth-quarter blowouts.
The two figure to be the prime competitors for the nickel cornerback role, initially, but there is an entire offseason for others to state their case, including versatile veteran defensive back Arthur Maulet, who was signed after the draft. Tre Norwood was a seventh-round pick, while Shakur Brown, Mike Gilbert, and Lamont Wade were signed as rookie free agents. Also on the roster are Stephen Denmark and DeMarkus Acy.
The third cornerback role will be the most heated, but there are still three offensive line positions jumbling around. Green is the favorite to start at center, but he will be challenged by veteran reserves, B.J. Finney and J.C. Hassenauer. Okorafor and Zach Banner, who has one start, will receive a push from rookie fourth-round pick Dan Moore, Jr., and possibly veteran free agent signing Joe Haeg as well, for the right to start at one of the two tackle positions.
It’s worth noting that Rosenthal’s starting lineup consists of a 3-3-5 front, which is…uh…probably not going to be prominent. The position left off is buck linebacker, where Vince Williams will presumably start, but he could be challenged by or even split duty with Robert Spillane. Rookie Buddy Johnson could even factor in as well.