The Pittsburgh Steelers recognized that their offensive line remained a significant deficiency coming out of the 2021 season, and it didn’t help that they had two starters hitting free agency. While they opted to re-sign one of them—right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor—they took the opportunity to bring in two outside free agents along the interior offensive line.
The bigger signing was James Daniels, agreeing to a three-year, $26.5 million contract. He will likely plug in at right guard, unless the team moves Kevin Dotson there. They also brought in Mason Cole, who has more experience playing at center and prefers the position, signing on a three-year, $15.75 million deal. Daniels sees it as a good thing that they can come in at the same time.
“It’s exciting that we can grow together”, he told reporters about his new teammate during his media availability last week. “We’ve all played a decent amount of football, so he can see stuff in my game that I can improve, or I can see stuff in his game that he can improve. So it’s exciting that we’re all getting the opportunity to build with each other and grow with each other. That’s very exciting”.
While Daniels is locked in for a starting role, it’s less certain that Cole will be a starter, even if the contract that the Steelers gave him does indicate that they expect him to start. That could be backup money for other teams, but it typically signals a starter by the Steelers’ free agency standards.
It could come at guard or center, with the latter requiring that the Steelers either move Kendrick Green, last year’s third-round draft pick, to guard, or simply put him on the bench. Cole, Green, and Dotson, as we sit here today, are competing for two starting jobs, and that’s assuming J.C. Hassenauer won’t also be in the mix.
Daniels is a former second-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears, playing out his rookie contract with the team that drafted him. He has started 48 out of 54 career games, or every game in which he has played since the middle of his rookie year. He missed the majority of the 2020 season due to a pectoral injury, but he played 100 percent of the snaps over 17 games last year.
As for Cole, he was originally drafted in the third round by the Arizona Cardinals in 2018. He was a full-time starter as a rookie, all at center, but that was due to starting center A.Q. Shipley missing the entire season after tearing his ACL. Cole started two games in 2019 before entering the starting lineup on a full-time basis in 2020, at center.
The Cardinals traded him to the Minnesota Vikings last March, and he began the year as a backup to third-year former first-round starting center Garrett Bradbury. After Bradbury dealt with a COVID-19 infection and missed a few games, Cole was plugged in at center, and then shifted to guard when he returned. An elbow injury landed him on the Reserve/Injured List before the close of the season, however.
The rest of the line consists of Okorafor, a fifth-year veteran with two years of starting experience, Dotson, going into his third year and missing most of his first year as a full-time starter last season due to an ankle injury, and a pair of second-year players. Green started at center all season until a late-season injury himself. Dan Moore Jr. started all but one game (due to injury) at left tackle.
Moore and Okorafor should be expected to resume their positions at left and right tackle, respectively, but the interior offensive line can be regarded as in flux. The only thing I would really put money on right now is Daniels starting at guard—either left or right.