Now that the 2021 season is over, bringing yet another year of disappointment, a fifth consecutive season with no postseason victories, it’s time to take stock of where the Pittsburgh Steelers stand. Specifically, where Steelers players stand individually based on what we have seen and are seeing over the course of the season and into the offseason as it plays out. We will also be reviewing players based on their previous season and their prospects for the future. A stock evaluation can take a couple of different approaches and I’ll try to make clear my reasoning. In some cases, it will be based on more long-term trends. In other instances, it will be a direct response to something that just happened. Because of this, we can and will see a player more than once over the course of the season as we move forward.
Player: T Chukwuma Okorafor
Stock Value: Up
Reasoning: The Steelers made a significant investment in Chukwuma Okorafor, a two-year starter at right tackle, as he was set to hit unrestricted free agency earlier this month, re-signing him to a three-year, $29.25 million contract.
A former third-round draft pick out of Western Michigan, Okorafor was always viewed as a player who may eventually start for the Steelers. It wasn’t until the 2021 season, however, that he had ever entered a season as an intended starter.
Okorafor competed for the right tackle job in 2019 and 2020, first against Matt Feiler and Zach Banner, and then against only Banner, losing both times. Banner was injured in the 2020 season opener, however, paving the way for Okorafor to play the rest of the season.
With the departure of Alejandro Villanueva last year, Okorafor was slated to enter the 2021 season at left tackle, where the team believed that he would be better suited, but Banner, projected to resume his starting role at right tackle, had a setback in his recovery from the ACL injury that ended his previous season, beginning the year on the Reserve/Injured List.
That had the domino effect of the Steelers kicking Okorafor back over to right tackle, with rookie Dan Moore Jr. starting at left tackle, because he was more comfortable playing on the left side. The coaching staff decided to leave the pair as-is even when Banner returned.
While he was far from a Pro Bowler, he did show some improvement, both in comparison to the 2020 season and over the course of this past season. His biggest issue was the fact that he kept getting penalized, eight times in all, many of them pre-snap penalties. He obviously needs to clean that up.
The broad consensus is that Okorafor is not a starter-quality right tackle, and that the Steelers overpaid for what they will get from him, but by and large, that is the price of a young and experienced tackle in today’s market, even at right tackle.
While he has a lot to prove, in spite of his dozens of career starts, he is still just 24 years old. He will be working under a new offensive line coach and in what will likely be a fairly different offense, with a new right guard alongside him. He can embrace these changes as a positive—he really has no choice—as we all hope for the best.