The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2021 season is over, already eliminated from the postseason after suffering a 42-21 loss at the hands of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. They just barely made the postseason with a 9-7-1 record and a little help from their friends.
This is an offseason of major change, with the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, the possible retirement of general manager Kevin Colbert, and the decisions about the futures of many important players to be made, such as Joe Haden, Stephon Tuitt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and others.
Aside from exploring their options at the quarterback position, the top global priority, once again, figures to be addressing the offensive line, which they did not do quite adequately enough a year ago. Dan Moore Jr. looks like he may have a future as a full-time starter, but Kendrick Green was clearly not ready. Chukwuma Okorafor is heading into free agency, as is Trai Turner.
These are the sorts of topics among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked. There is rarely a concrete answer, but this is your venue for exploring the topics we present through all their uncertainty.
Question: Is Mason Cole a starter-quality offensive lineman?
The Steelers have signed two offensive linemen in free agency. One of them is an obvious starter and a clear upgrade from what they had last season in the form of James Daniels. The other is a less convincing case in Mason Cole, who has not consistently started since being drafted in the third round by the Cardinals in 2018. First, perhaps, a background on his path will help contextualize his career.
Cole started all 16 games as a rookie in 2018 for the Cardinals, but this was due to their starting center, A.Q. Shipley, missing the entire year. When Shipley returned in 2019, Cole served as a backup, starting only two games due to injury. Shipley departed for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency that year, reuniting with Bruce Arians for the fourth time, and Cole started all but two games that year due to injury.
In 2021, the Cardinals acquired Rodney Hudson via trade, a player widely regarded to be one of the very top centers in the NFL. They prompted turned around and traded him to the Vikings, who have a young first-round starting center in Garrett Bradbury.
The Vikings also have 2020 second-round pick Ezra Cleveland as a full-time starting guard. Oli Udoh earned the starting right guard job in 2021, starting all but one game. Bradbury missed several games due to COVID-19 in the second half of the year, which Cole started at center; when Bradbury returned, Cole took over Udoh’s starting job at right guard, and Udoh actually moved to left tackle for due games due to injury before their left tackle also returned.
After their left tackle returned, Udoh transitioned into a backup role, but that only lasted one game before Cole was injured himself going on injured reserve with an elbow injury, leaving Udoh to finish the final three games as the starter. He would have finished the final 10 games of the season as a starter for the Vikings had he not gotten injured, with four starts at center and three at right guard; it would have been four and six.
Thus, he comes to the Steelers with 38 career starts, but only in one season did he enter the year as an intended full-time starter (in 2020). That was the only season in which he wasn’t facing an obvious (most often incumbent) starter who was healthy. He played behind Shipley in 2019, was displaced because of Hudson in 2021, and then played behind Bradbury that same year. He started in 2018 due to Shipley being injured, and then in 2020 after Shipley was brought over to Tampa Bay by Arians.
As he comes into Pittsburgh, his primary competition is Kendrick Green, who as a rookie was perhaps the worst full-time starting center, if not interior lineman, in the NFL in 2021. He is most likely going to be their starter. But is he a ‘starter-quality’ starter? That’s an obviously ambiguous term I will leave you to define for yourself—as long as it comes up short of ‘definitely making the Pro Bowl’.