After lamenting his decision last offseason to not add an experienced, versatile veteran to a young offensive line, Pittsburgh Steelers’ General Manager Kevin Colbert made sure he didn’t make the same mistake twice.
On Monday during the first day of the legal tampering period, Colbert and the Steelers signed veteran offensive lineman Mason Cole to a three-year, $15.25 million deal, according to reports from ESPN’s Adam Schefter and NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.
Of course, the initial reaction from the fan base was, “who?”
A closer look reveals a classic Colbert move, one that allows the Steelers to add a veteran interior offensive lineman with starting experience at left guard, center and right guard in his NFL career, and comes at an affordable price while remaining relatively young up front.
In four seasons in the NFL after being a third-round pick in 2018 out of Michigan to the Arizona Cardinals, Cole has played in 60 career games, starting 39 of them between stints with the Cardinals and the Minnesota Vikings. Now, he lands in the Steel City aiming to plug a hole or two along the offensive line.
What position that will be at is anyone’s guess at this point, but it feels relatively safe to project him at right guard, at least initially, even though he split time pretty evenly at center and right guard in Minnesota in 2021.
The Steelers should be pretty familiar with Cole, considering he played 70 snaps at right guard in the Vikings’ Week 14 win in Minnesota, recording an impressive 83.9 run blocking grade from Pro Football Focus in the process.
He moves relatively well when asked to pull, and his hit rate is pretty solid. He’s not the most athletic overall, but he gets the job done. The one thing I don’t quite like what I see from Cole though is his hand usage in the run game. His arms (32 inches) are relatively short for his stature (6-foot-5, 292 pounds), and you can see here in the clip against push on the move that he doesn’t extend with his initial punch, instead catching Bush.
He’ll have to clean that up with the Steelers under new OL coach Pat Meyer.
As I said, Cole moves relatively well for his size. He was a solid athlete at Michigan and has continued that in the NFL overall. He’s not the most athletic along the interior, but he has good overall footwork in the run game and shows the ability to pull and land blows.
This rep from center against the Los Angeles Chargers on the road was a good one showing Cole’s ability to climb to the second level and get a hat on a linebacker.
He’s sound in his technique here and does a great job with his assignment, giving a chip to the defensive tackle to help out left guard Ezra Cleveland, and then immediately flips his head and his hips to get square with the linebacker and climb, landing the block to give running back Dalvin Cook a lane right off of his left hip.
One thing I noticed in five games of tape with Cole was his first step at center. That can often be tricky for centers, especially on reach blocks, but Cole has a quick first step that allows him to move well laterally. It’s subtle here against the Baltimore Ravens, but watch his left foot at the snap.It’s fast, allows him to get over in front of the Raven’s defensive tackle and turn him.
Though the play is stopped shot, Cole does a tremendous job reaching and turning the defensive tackle here, opening a lane for Cook.
Sometimes in the run game, it’s just about staying in front of your man. Cole is not a guy that’s going to move linemen off of their spots on a consistent basis, but he does a good job of staying engaged and keeping himself between the defender and the ball carrier, which is how it’s taught at a very basic level overall.
He’s maxed out overall, in my opinion, based on his play and his frame, so I don’t think you’re going to see a sizable jump in his game. He can be steady overall though and land his blocks, which is something the Steelers’ offensive line struggled to do overall last season.
Final clip here in the run game from Cole. He’s not a mauler by any means, and I have some questions about his overall play strength. I really appreciate his spatial awareness though. Throughout his film he has shown the consistent ability to engage in support but be able to pull off and pick up a late blitzer or a guy flashing free.
This rep against the San Francisco 49ers raised my eyebrows, largely because it was the first show of some power from Cole as he blasts linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair as he attempts to fill the lane in run support.
That’s a great job by Cole assisting the right guard on the duo before coming off late to strike Al-Shaair to the turf before he can get to running back Alexander Mattison.
Cole is going to have problems with powerful guys though, like a Kenny Clark. I bring up that name because Clark dominated Cole in Week 11 while Cole was at center. Clark dominates even the top centers, so it’s not a massive knock on Cole overall, but the tape was stunning, especially this clip.
If you’re going to lose, don’t lose right away like this. That blows up the entire play right from the start as Cole gets folded backwards right into Dalvin Cook’s lap, leading to the tackle for loss. Clark is a freak, but you cannot lose like this, and that’s a general problem with Cole. He often catches guys, rather than attacking, and often stops his feet at the point of contact.
Watch his feet here. He doesn’t come forward and catches Clark in the run game, leading the quick loss. If we are to take anything away from Meyer’s coaching style in Carolina, he wants guys to take the fight to defenders. Cole will need to make an adjustment there.
After watching a bunch of Cole tape, I feel comfortable saying I prefer him much more as a run blocker than a pass protector. Cole still has good feet in pass protection overall, which allows him to mirror well overall, but the arm length and the tendency to catch defenders really gives him fits in pass protection.
Against the Steelers last season, Cole struggled with Chris Wormley, who had a nice breakout season. Wormley won with his hand usage as his reach allowed him to get into Cole early and often and then work his moves.
Lined up at right guard here, Cole loses quickly with a failed initial punch, allowing Wormley to slap away the punch and swim him. Once Wormley gets that right hand on Cole’s inside shoulder to toss him, it’s a loss. Cole doesn’t have the length to lock out and stalemate here.
Along with the short arms, Cole struggles to anchor overall in pass protection and can play with high pad level at times. Against the Chargers last season, Linval Joseph did a great job getting into Cole’s chest and taking him for a ride a few times.
His punch is pass protection appears slow and gives defensive linemen the opportunity to adjust to it well before Cole comes close to landing it. Additionally, his technique tends to fall apart throughout games as he’s out over his feet a bit on punches, causing him to become off-balance and vulnerable.
Watch this rep against the 49ers late in the first half. He throws a slow initial punch in the direction of 49ers’ standout defensive lineman Arik Armstead. Watch the way Armstead slaps him aside though. It shouldn’t be that easy, especially against a man the size of Cole, but that’s what happens when technique falls apart and a poor punch is throw.
Good news is, Cole had some good pass protection reps overall.
He shows the ability to recover quickly and can mirror well overall when he wins early.
His feet are his best asset, in my opinion, so when he has his feet under him and is taking the proper steps, he can win even with shorter arms.
It doesn’t have to be flashy with Cole. He can win ugly, which is what he does here against Joseph, recovering from a poor rep earlier in the game to get his hands inside on Joseph early and sink his hips, holding on just long enough for Kirk Cousins to get the throw away.
Cole is at his best when he’s taking the contact to the defender, rather than catching. He seemed to do that more in Arizona than in Minnesota, so maybe he was taught to change something in Minnesota under OL coach Phil Rauscher.
Based on the contract details that emerged for Cole Tuesday morning, it’s a good bet that Cole is a starter moving forward in the Steel City. I prefer him at center compared to guard, based on the tape that I watched. He just feels more comfortable at center, and the tape there is better than at guard, Steelers’ game aside.
He’s not a flashy signing by any means, but he’s a solid veteran — one that can step into a lineup and provide serviceable reps. He’s not going to make many mistakes and isn’t going to jump off the tape in a bad way overall.
But that means he is exactly what he is: an average interior offensive lineman overall. There’s nothing overly wrong with that, it’s just not the upgrade the fan base or many in the media was expecting. He feels like a much more athletic version of BJ Finney, which is just fine. Add in the fact that he doesn’t turn 26 until March 28, there’s was to talk yourself into the guy.
The signing of Cole should not block the Steelers from adding additional names along the interior of the offensive line either through free agency of the 2022 NFL Draft. What it does is protect the Steelers overall one year after going through a disastrous season in the trenches. The addition allows the Steelers to at least have insurance in case they aren’t able to land an iOL in the draft that they feel good about.