It was a surprise to many when former Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert moved quickly to retain veteran right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor in free agency in March, signing the former third-round pick to a lucrative three-year deal, ensuring the Steelers retained a young piece of an offensive line that was undergoing some changes.
Though Okorafor hasn’t quite played at a top 10 level that his new contract shows at the right tackle position, the Steelers banked on the belief that at just 25 years old that his best football is ahead of him, especially under new offensive line coach Pat Meyer. Okorafor has essentially functioned as the Steelers’ starting right tackle the last two seasons, starting 16 games in 2021 and 15 in 2020, stepping in for the injured Zach Banner in Week 1 against the New York Giants on the road that season in the fourth quarter.
Since then, Okorafor has had his ups and downs, but Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin stated during a media session at the NFL’s league meetings in March that Okorafor’s experience and youthfulness were key reasons why the Steelers moved so quickly to retain him as a cornerstone of the rebuilt offensive line, at least for 2022.
“He’s youthful and experienced,” Tomlin 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 certainly continued to grow as a pass blocker and run blocker, developing nicely overall. Though he still has his struggles and isn’t quite the run blocker at this point that the Steelers are looking for, he’s still so young overall for the position. It’s important to remember that he didn’t start playing football until roughly 2012, two years after his family immigrated to the United States from Nigeria.
A little over a decade into his time playing football, Okorafor could be turning a corner, which would provide a significant boost to the Steelers’ offensive line, which had a rather poor season in 2021. Former Steelers offensive lineman and current radio color commentator Craig Wolfley, speaking with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Tim Benz in the Letters From Camp podcast Monday, stated that he believes the best is yet to come for the veteran offensive tackle, especially as he finds his “man strength.”
“If you think about it, he’s only 24, 25 years old. There’s a lot of people talking about, ‘Well, he’s got this and that’. Well, he’s still a young guy finding his man strength,” Wolfley stated to Benz, according to audio via the Tribune-Review. “When you’re 24, 25, you’re just coming into that strength that you’ve built up over the years and it’s starting to come out and give you that extra boost as you grow into that man body of yours, and I think that’s just something that Chuks is gonna grow into, and we’re gonna see more and better of Chuks Okorafor.”
That certainly could be the case in 2022 as Okorafor displayed more physicality throughout the 2021 season than he’d shown before in his previous 19 career starts leading up to last season. He’s still a good athlete overall for the position, pairing nicely with second-year pro Dan Moore Jr. to give the Steelers two versatile, athletic bookend tackles.
Physicality is missing though, but as Wolfley believes, the fifth-year tackle is starting to find that portion of his game, which could unlock a new level for the young right tackle. That should be music to the ears of Steelers fans.
If Okorafor takes another sizable step forward in 2022 and continues to develop on a strong trajectory, the Steelers’ offensive line will improve in a hurry.