Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor recently talked to 93.7 The Fan during the OTA portion of the offseason about several different topics of discussion ranging from his new contract signed this offseason, playing with new teammates along the offensive line, and how he needs to be more in a leadership role as one of the longest-tenured players on the offense heading into 2022. Along with all these topics, Okorafor was asked about his 2021 season and if he had any key takeaways from last year as he looks to improve his game for this upcoming season.
“I think every year that the goal is to always change something and try to improve on at least one thing,” Okorafor said in response to the question. “So, I think I did a little bit better than I played the year before, but I still have a lot of work I still have to do to improve.”
Nothing Earth-shattering here in this response from Chuks with the old “I think I played better last year than the year before, but still have some things in need to work on going forward” line we hear from nearly every player asked the same question during the offseason heading into training camp. What else is he supposed to say? That he was phenomenal and doesn’t have to work on much else, or that he was terrible and has a lot of ground to make up for next season?
To put tangibility to what Okorafor said, yes, he improved in 2021 in several key areas. He represented himself well as a pass protector last season, notably improving on his total pressures and pressure percentage compared to 2020 as referenced in a recent film room on Okorafor as a pass protector. Still, Okorafor tends to struggle playing with consistent power and nastiness as a run blocker to become a more well-rounded NFL tackle. Still, given the fact that he mentions areas where he showed improvement as well as areas he needs to continue improving, I’d imagine that he is well-aware of what needs to be worked on heading into the 2022 season.
Chuks was then asked the question about how he was projected to be the starter at LT in 2021 with Zach Banner expected to man the RT spot. However, due to complications post-knee surgery with Banner as he tried to work back during training camp, Okorafor was asked to move back to RT and have rookie fourth-round pick Dan Moore Jr. start at his more natural position on the blindside. When asked about the decision to kick back over to the right side after preparing to play LT, Okorafor takes a like from HC Mike Tomlin’s book about being a team player and a “volunteer rather than a hostage”.
“Honestly, you obviously don’t really wish any type of bad thing on your teammate or like someone you have known for a bunch of years,” Okorafor responded to the question. “But, like you also never really know how things play out, whether it’s in the league or life. You also don’t know how things are going to play out. So, I just kind of had my mind focused on playing level when I told the coach and that it was best for me to move back to the right. And have [Moore] play left. I did what was best for me and best for the team.”
Heading into a contract year in 2021, Okorafor could have pulled an Orlando Brown Jr. and declined to move back to the right tackle spot and opt for the left tackle spot, one that is a more natural fit for him having played there at Western Michigan before coming to the NFL. He also could have used the year of playing on the blind side to hopefully drive up his asking price on the open market in free agency, making Pittsburgh play Moore at RT or start swing tackle Joe Haeg due to Moore’s lack of exposure there.
However, despite the opportunity to be focused on himself and what could possibly have been better for his own self-interests, Okorafor kept a team-first mentality as he referred to and willingly moved back to the right side, presenting the best option for the team that was in a state of flux along the offensive line due to Banner’s complications with his knee. This speaks to Okorafor’s character and mindset of being a team player, allowing the rookie to play his more natural position and move back after spending an entire offseason preparing to man the blindside himself in 2021.
We will see whether the decision to re-sign Okorafor to the deal he got this offseason will pay dividends in 2022, but for a team that preaches continuity and sacrificing one’s own self-glory for the betterment of the team, Okorafor has proven to be a great cultural fit in Pittsburgh and for that locker room. Other teammates likely saw his willingness to move back to the right side and took a mental note of that last season, giving credit where credit is due with the move earning Okorafor a fair amount of respect from his peers.
An offensive line needs to be a cohesive unit built on trust and brotherhood, and for all his faults, Okorafor appears to have those qualities as the now elder statesman of the group.