In 2020, we started a new summer series to look at some players that were poised to have a breakout season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. This is a look at those players who have been productive to this point in their careers but could be on the verge of busting out and getting more national recognition. Last year’s list included Terrell Edmunds, Cameron Sutton, Stephon Tuitt and James Washington. This is a breakout candidate for the 2021 season.
This is not going to be you father’s offensive line. The starter at every position will be new except for Zach Banner if he starts at right tackle and he only started one game last year. The Steelers lost four starters and three veterans in Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro who had a combined 371 starts between them. This line is going to have to gel quickly and grow up fast.
A tackle may not be a position you look at to have a breakout season, but I think Okorafor fits. There are factors going into this season that could point to him stepping up this year and having his best season as a professional.
To This Point
The Steelers invested a third-round pick in the tackle out of Western Michigan and to some it may feel like he hasn’t lived up being taken on day two. You have to remember he came in at a time when the Steelers had veterans in place which gave him time to grow.
In 2018, it was Villanueva on the left and Marcus Gilbert on the right. He was credited with three starts in his rookie season. Two were as a tackle eligible formation to start the game and the other was a week 12 loss at Denver subbing for Gilbert. In 2019, Feiler took over at right tackle and Okorafor spent most of the season inactive. He did get one start at right tackle in a week 10 win versus the Los Angeles Rams when Feiler played left guard to help handle Aaron Donald.
In 2020, there was a tight battle to start on the right side which Banner won out of camp but an injury in week one thrust Okorafor into the starting lineup. He played in all 17 games starting the final 16 and finished second on the offensive line with over 1,100 offensive snaps.
Overall, he did fairly well and was called for only 5 penalties despite playing at a somewhat new position. He had two holding penalties, a face mask, a false start, and an unnecessary roughness call against Cincinnati after pushing a high stepping defender late out of bounds after an interception. He also allowed 3 sacks but has shown improvement year over year.
Johnathan Heitritter did some wonderful in depth looks at Okorafor’s game and found he is a good run blocker when he has a size advantage but needs to step up his effort. As a pass blocker he has the tools to man the blind side but needs to limit his low moments.
What can happen?
Confidence Builder – There were plenty of outlets before the draft that had offensive tackle as a major need and in rounds one and two there were plenty of tackles they could have chosen. Alas, they waited until the fourth round to select a tackle and, at least at this point, he doesn’t seem to be any threat to overtake Okorafor.
Obviously, we don’t get to see what he can do every day but the way the draft unfolded that told me the Steeler have a lot of confidence in the ability of Okorafor. Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm has been impressed by him so far and his willingness to be more physical. These are good signs that the team is comfortable with him at left tackle.
Veteran Experience – As far as players who have played for the Steelers, Okorafor is the grisly veteran with 20 career starts. B.J. Finney has 12, Kevin Dotson and J.C Hassenauer have four each and Banner has two. Trai Turner is a veteran who will be joining that group which will be helpful but overall, this is a young offensive line.
Okorafor will need to step up and be a leader on this team not only for the benefit of the team but also for him. He is in a contract year and a strong performance this season can put him in line of big payday.
Heading Back Home – Playing left tackle and right tackle are totally different animals. You may think if you can do one, you can do the other but that is not always the case. Think of it like hitters in baseball. Some hit right-handed, some hit left, and much smaller group can hit from both sides of the plate.
Right tackle is more often thought of as a run blocking tackle. Look at the players like Banner, Feiler and Gilbert and you see a bigger, forward moving player where Villanueva was a long, lean, agile player to protect the backside. Okorafor is a more natural left tackle. I would expect his comfort level to go way up this year.
On top of that, there is an attitude change on the offensive line. It would seem Klemm wants to have a more aggressive group. In Alex Kozora’s draft profile he suggested Okorafor needed to play nastier as a run blocker. If that is going to happen, it will be under the tutelage of Klemm and his philosophy.
So, for 2021
Okorafor had the benefit of playing behind veterans giving him the chance to not only learn the right way to play the position but also not be forced into something he wasn’t ready to take on. When thrust into the starting lineup in 2020 he gained valuable experience and, I hope, confidence to know he is ready to take the step forward.
He will need to take on a leadership role and quite honestly take a step up in his play to shift to the blind side of a less than mobile veteran quarterback. Villanueva was a standout there for years but in the last couple he did have some struggles and Okorafor has plenty of athleticism to take over.
The entire offensive line needs to step up this season, but a lot will be expected of the new left tackle and the potential to break out is there. There are some that agree including Max Starks and those that would disagree but I feel confident in the Big Oak and expect him to play well in 2021.