The Pittsburgh Steelers have spent the past two offseasons rebuilding nearly their entire offensive line. About the only name who has remained throughout the entire face-lift has been OT Chukwuma Okorafor, who signed a three-year deal with the Steelers during the first week of free agency.
Speaking during today’s league meetings, Tomlin explained why the team re-signed Okorafor to continue being the team’s starting right tackle.
“He’s youthful and experienced,” he said via video provided by the team’s official YouTube channel. “That’s what’s exciting. This is a guy that’s been a multiple year starter for us. And still he is only 24 years old. I think it’s reasonable to expect him to continue to grow and get better. I know he brings that business approach and those are some of the reasons why we’re excited about continuing to do business with him.”
Okorafor has functionally served as the team’s starting right tackle for the past two years. He didn’t technically start the 2020 season but replaced Zach Banner four quarters into the season after Banner was lost for the year due to an ACL tear. Okorafor started the next 15 games and carried that over into 2021, starting 16 games this past season. He won’t have his 25th birthday until early August, making him a rare example of a player coming off his rookie contract who hasn’t turned 25.
With that youthfulness, Tomlin sees the chance for Okorafor to get better. He was raw and undeveloped coming out of Western Michigan, and his starting experience has been good for him after largely sitting on the bench his first two years in the league. Injuries have held him back too, including a shoulder injury early in his career that hampered his development.
While it’s hard to quantify production, Okorafor did allow just two sacks in 2021 according to our charting, easily the most impressive number on the team. But he was also highly penalized and allowed more pressures than the sack data indicates. It’s also hard to pin down where exactly Okorafor can get better. He’s never going to be a tenacious run blocker and he’s not a poor technician, so it’s difficult to see where his game could grow by leaps and bounds.
But to his credit, he’s been the most consistent and stabilizing force along an offensive line that has seen plenty of turnover the last 24 months. Clearly the Steelers saw value in that. And with few good alternatives, the free agent market was expensive and weak and the draft – while having talent – is risky to bank on, the team decided to bring Okorafor back. The good news is the deal is essentially pay-as-you-go, and if Okorafor doesn’t make a jump in 2022, the team can look for his replacement during the 2023 offseason. If he plays well, the Steelers will have him locked up for two more years.