The Pittsburgh Steelers had the opportunity to start the same starting five offensive linemen through the bulk of the time between the 2015-2018 seasons. Alejandro Villanueva was the left tackle, during which he made two Pro Bowls. Ramon Foster was next to him, with Maurkice Pouncey at center, David DeCastro to his right, and Marcus Gilbert at right tackle. And for the most part, the bulk of that group had been together even longer, from 2012 through 2019.
Foster came in first as a college free agent in 2009, then Pouncey in the first round a year later, Gilbert in the second in 2011, and DeCastro in the first in 2012. Villanueva was the late arrival, making the roster in 2015. Even with a minor change here and there, they had remarkable consistency, and it coincided with some of the best line play in the league, things they never took for granted.
“We’ve always talked about how grateful we were, having that continuity for many years, and guys slowly fall off”, DeCastro recently reflected in an interview on The Fan. “Gilbert, and then Ramon, Pounce, now me. I don’t really think too much about not being together. I remember the great memories and times and great games and seasons we had together”.
“It was a lot of fun. They made the game easy to play, and that’s what football’s about, man”, he continued. “It’s about friendships and memories and the relationships you make for life. Even it if ends abruptly and not the way you wanted it to, but that’s life in the NFL”.
DeCastro, of course, was recently waived with a Non-Football Injury designation. He revealed that he got an MRI during minicamp that showed he would need yet another surgery on his ankle, his third over the course of his career, dealing with an injury that stems from his torn MCL in his rookie preseason.
No doubt, the team was aware that he was having issues. He played through the ankle last season, among other injuries. But they obviously didn’t know until he got the MRI just how serious the issue had become again, to the point where it would jeopardize his ability to play this year, something they could not afford.
Now he is contemplating retirement, in which he would follow Foster, who retired in 2020, and Gilbert and Pouncey, who did so this year. Villanueva is not quite done, signing a two-year contract with the Baltimore Ravens in free agency, but he can’t be too far behind as he enters his mid-30s.
The offensive line is going to look incredibly different this year. Chukwuma Okorafor is expected at left tackle, where he’s never played in an NFL game before, all 18 prior starts coming at right tackle. Second-year Kevin Dotson, who started four games last year, is penciled in at left guard, while rookie Kendrick Green is expected to be the center. Five-time Pro Bowler Trai Turner was signed to replace DeCastro at right guard, while Zach Banner, who has one start, will return to the right tackle position.
It would be foolish to expect this group to live up to their predecessors at their peak, a group that included three Pro Bowlers and two who were at the very least at the borderline at times. Not only were they great, they also had longevity. That’s something to aspire to, for sure, but likely is not realistic.