Chukwuma Okorafor wasn’t drafted in 2018 to be thrown into the fire. The Pittsburgh Steelers had Alejandro Villanueva on the left side and Marcus Gilbert on the right. He would, at best, be the swing tackle. And he served as the swing tackle, or more accurately, the tackle-eligible tight end, on game days.
But when Gilbert went down, the coaches turned to Matt Feiler to start. Until Feiler was nursing an injury ahead of a game on the road against the Denver Broncos. Feiler dressed for the game as an emergency option, but Okorafor had to make his first career start lining up against All-Pro Von Miller.
While he did notch a sack in the second half, his impact on the game was largely controlled, limited to two tackles across 54 snaps played. Okorafor was given a lot of credit for acquitting himself as well as he did against the competition, even with a lot of help. But he doesn’t take special pride in or confidence from that debut.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Von Miller or a seventh-round pick, or someone who wasn’t a draft pick. You’ve got to come in every day and work every day to be the best”, he told reporters yesterday. “Von is obviously one of the best, ever. But you’ve still got to be able to block everyone. You never know how good someone might be, so you’ve got to take it like you’re playing Von every play or T.J. every game”.
Okorafor is now the frontrunner to replace Villanueva, who departed in free agency, as the Steelers’ starting left tackle. He was mostly a scratch during the 2019 season, with Zach Banner dressing over him as the tackle-eligible. The latter also won a training camp battle last year to start at right tackle.
But after Banner suffered a torn ACL in the opener, Okorafor had the opportunity to start for the remainder of the season. Reviews of his overall performance were mixed, but he did at least gain a tremendous amount of experience, logging more than 1,000 snaps.
He is not guaranteed to be the starter on opening day, though. The Steelers signed veteran Joe Haeg in free agency, who has a couple dozens starts under his belt in his career. They also used a fourth-round draft pick last month on Dan Moore Jr., an experienced SEC left tackle.
Okorafor will, however, get the first crack at it, and he has been running with the ‘first team’ throughout OTAs on the left side, where he actually has more experience at the collegiate level than he did on the right side, even though his NFL experience has come on the right.
It is the Steelers’ first option to have Okorafor on the left and Banner on the right. Ideally, if Moore works his way into the lineup, it’s because he earned it, and not because one of the others struggled and failed. Regardless of what they might have done against Von Miller years ago.