The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Chukwuma Okorafor in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, since which time he has spent every game on the 53-man roster. The most significant bit of information one can glean from that is the fact that it means Okorafor is entering the final year of his rookie contract, with unrestricted free agency looming in 2021.
That’s not where his focus lies this summer, however. He knows the business side will wait. His priority until next year is to play to the best of his abilities, which starts with earning the right to start 17-plus games as the Steelers’ left tackle.
“I mean, honestly, I have one job, and it’s to play, whether it’s my second year or my last year on my deal”, he told reporters yesterday when asked about his contract status. “I don’t really focus on that yet. I still have, what, six, seven, eight months until I have to look at it”.
I’m sure at some level he is thinking about his future, but the reality is that it can wait. Like everybody else, he wants to earn as much as he possibly can next year. But in order for him to put himself in the best position to do so, he has to focus on his play this year.
Okorafor has 18 starts at right tackle under his belt, but all of those starts came as an injury replacement. First for Matt Feiler, and then for Zach Banner, to both of whom he lost training camp battles for the right to be the starter in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Now Okorafor is the frontrunner to take over at left tackle with Alejandro Villanueva having departed in free agency. He has been running with the first-team offense throughout OTAs, but at some point, he will have to hold off free agent signing Joe Haeg and rookie Dan Moore Jr.
“Right now, it’s taking it day by day, whether it’s OTAs and minicamp next week, training camp, and then to play the whole year, hopefully”, Okorafor said. “I don’t really want to think too deep down the right now, so we’ll see what happens. It’s a business, so we’ll see how it does play out”.
If he can secure the left tackle position and put together a competent 17-game season, the Western Michigan product can stand to add a lot of value to his name, whether that ultimately comes from the Steelers organization, or from elsewhere when he (potentially) hits unrestricted free agency in March of 2022. At which point he can finally focus on his future.