Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp 2: The O-Line is Getting Thinner
photo via Steelers.com
2018 third-round draft pick OT Chuks Okafor seemed like a luxury pick when he was selected. Or perhaps not so much a luxury as a “Haven’t dem Stillers noticed that the problem last season was the durn defense?!!!” pick. But with the (temporary) demise of third-year tackle Jerald Hawkins during OTA (torn quad) it started to look a good deal smarter.
And now G Ramon Foster, who is entering his 10th season in the NFL, is out, at least for the nonce. In Foster’s case the news is considerably better than first feared when he was taken off the field with a knee injury during the Steelers’ first padded practice on Saturday, It turns out he has a hyper-extended knee with no ligament damage, which is projected to keep him out for 4-5 weeks. Fortunately the heir apparent, YouTube star* B.J. Finney, has had a considerable number of game reps by now coming in for injured players—mainly Foster, but he also played some center last season, with mixed results.
Foster was the subject of some amount of speculation during the off-season, as some thought he was a candidate to be cut for salary cap reasons. Foster did not have one of his best seasons last year, at least according to Pro Football Focus, who, for what it’s worth, ranked him very low. The more interesting thing to me is that since becoming a full-time starter in his third season (2011,) Foster has only twice played a 16-game season—in 2012 and 2015, although he started at least 14 games the other years.
But it seems safe to speculate that Foster, whose contract is up at the end of this season, is in his final year with the Steelers, and likely in the NFL. So the additional camp reps for Finney become doubly valuable.
But this prompts me to look at what the Steelers have behind the starters along the whole line. After all, it is critical to keep an aging Ben Roethlisberger upright, however dietarily rejuvenated he might be, and our 14.2 million dollar man and his backups in the halfback slot can only do so much without good blocking.
I’m using the preliminary depth chart from Ourlads.com, with the proviso that any depth chart at this point is extremely speculative:
Left Tackle: Behind Al Villanueva, a single tackle is listed. I don’t know about y’all, but this makes me nervous.
The single tackle is Jake Rodgers, a 7th round pick by the Falcons in 2015. Since then he has accrued one year of NFL experience on six different teams, in an impressive 21 different NFL transactions. This is his third stint on the Steelers—he was a camp body in 2017, signed to the practice squad last November, picked up by Houston in December, waived by them in mid-May of this year, and claimed off waivers by the Steelers immediately afterwards. He must keep 95% of his stuff packed at all times.
Right Tackle: There are actually two guys listed behind Gilbert, which given his history is probably a good thing. (In the past four seasons he has started 12 games, 16 games, 13 games, and 7 games respectively, although four of the games last season were missed due to suspension for PEDs.) The first player listed after Gilbert is Chuks Okafor, who you can read about here. The second is Larson Graham, a Duquesne University guy who draftanalyst.com described thusly after his Pro Day:
Fundamentally sound college tackle who will also get consideration at guard this summer. Blocks with excellent pad level and leverage, moves well on his feet and stays square. Nasty, attacks blocks and works through the whistle. Seals defenders from the action and stands out as a position blocker. Instinctive and shows great awareness. Quick out to the second level and shows the ability to hit a moving target. Makes outstanding use of angles.
He is undersized for a tackle at 6’4″, 297 pounds, but the analyst also noted “offers possibilities in a zone-blocking scheme.”
He was signed as a UDFA by the Falcons (what’s with all the Falcons guys?) after the 2017 draft, and played mostly center in their camp. He was released at the end of camp, and didn’t sign with anyone else until the Steelers came calling this past April. He played in the interior during mini-camp. Jim Wexell asked him whether he was strictly an interior player a few weeks ago, and he said “Absolutely.” But he also noted he played tackle during his whole college career (right tackle, as you might suspect,) but he’s “just not quite big enough to be a tackle in the NFL.”
This makes it doubly interesting that Ourlads doesn’t even list him as an interior backup. But to be fair to them, he’s listed as an OT on the Steelers.com roster. Time will tell, I suppose. And presumably this is at least in part because of the very shallow depth at tackle.
Center: Behind Maurkice Pouncey is Parker Collins and Patrick Morris. Both have the sort of name that could be either way around, like Stevenson Sylvester of yesteryear. Should either be forced to play due to injury, it will be interesting to see if the national commentators get their name the right way around.
Collins was a UDFA in 2017, picked up by Jacksonville after the draft and waived a month later. The Rams signed him as a camp body and kept him until mid-September. After that he was a free agent until the Steelers came calling in mid-April. Draftanalyst.com said this:
Smallish but hard-working lineman who gets the most from his ability. Displays outstanding vision, blocks with a nasty attitude and works through the whistle. Fires off the snap into blocks, stays square and shows explosiveness at the point. Effective with the shotgun snap, seals opponents from the action and plays smart football.
Patrick Morris was a 2018 UDFA from Appalachian State who signed in mid-May. Draftanalyst.com didn’t have anything to say about him, which is a pity because it is interesting to compare, and NFL.com’s draft profile, in toto, is “Likely needs time in developmental league.” So let’s hope we don’t end up down to our No. 3 center, or guard, for that matter, because he’s also listed as the backup to B.J. Finney.
Right Guard: Matt Feiler is David DeCastro’s back-up, as you might suspect, and started the final regular-season game of 2017 when the team gave DeCastro the day off. Behind him is Joe Cheek, the only other lineman on the roster.
Although Cheek can’t match Jake Rodgers’ impressive list of NFL transactions, he has 13 of his own, beginning in 2016 when the Saints signed him as a UDFA. They waived him in mid-September of 2016 and Houston picked him up for a few month for their practice squad. Kansas City signed him, kept him until mid-September of 2017, and waived him. When he cleared waivers they signed him to their practice squad, but waived him with an injury. Cleveland signed him this January, waived him in mid-March, and the Steelers signed him a month later.
Lance Zeirlein of NFL.com noted the following in his draft profile:
Cheek is built like a tackle, but played guard at Texas A&M thanks in large part to the outstanding tackle talent that has come through the program. Cheek’s lack of play strength could limit his draft prospects as a guard, but his stock could be helped out quite a bit if teams work him out as a tackle and like what they see.
Zierlein said he was “athletic” and “asked to play in space and at a high rate of speed.” This is doubly impressive as the Steelers.com roster lists him as 6’7″, 311 pounds. And sure enough, the Steelers.com roster lists him as an OT rather than a guard.
The roster contains one other offensive lineman not mentioned by Ourlads, Chris Schleuger. Lance Zierlein hit copy/paste on his profile, apparently, as it was exactly the same as that of Patrick Morris—”Likely needs time in developmental league.”
So there you have it. I’ll try to give a bit more information on some of these guys when I go to camp, but as usual there will be far too much to watch, so don’t expect much. Fortunately, we have the world’s best O-line coach—if anyone can coach these guys up it’s Coach Munch.
*We have to embarrass Finney with this video at least once more before he becomes a starter: