Steelers-Ravens Scheduling Mess Shows NFL Must COVID Pod. Now.

The COVID-19 outbreak that has now delayed the Steelers and Ravens game twice continues to spread unabated. First,we learned that several Ravens players had tested positive. NFL doctors assured us the spread had stopped. Then, we learned that those players included Lamar Jackson. NFL doctors again assured us the spread had stopped.

Again, NFL doctors reassured us the spread had stopped. Now James Conner and Matt Canada have tested positive, with Danny Smith out “sick.” So aren’t related to the outbreak in Owings Mills, but Willie Snead’s positive test most certainly is.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

As of the morning of Monday November 30th, at least 12 Baltimore Ravens players and 8 team staff have tested positive for COVID 19. Baltimore has 18 players on its COVID-19 reserve list – not counting Willie Snead. Out west, Denver Broncos had all 3 quarterbacks ineligible due to COVID-19 concerns.

Notice a trend?

Credit the NFL’s Roger Goodell, the NFLPA’s DeMaurice Smith and their medical staffs and logistics teams for getting the 2020 season this far. The nature of the game and the size for the NFL make “socially distancing” almost logistically impossible.

  • Yet we’ve had 11 weeks of uninterrupted football.
  • Major disruptions due to COVID-19 have been minimal.

Until now.

But what every epidemiologist has predicted has come true: As colder temperatures force more people indoors, people breathe more recirculated air and more people get infected with COVID-19. Physics, biology and Earth Sciences conspire to give COVID-19 its perfect breeding ground.

That means what has gotten the NFL to Thanksgiving won’t get it through December and through the playoffs.
IF the NFL is to make it to the Super Bowl without the type of months-long-delays that hit MLB, the NHL and NBA its going to need to adopt the latter two league’s strategy of bubbling. Clearly, the idea of moving and isolating the entire NFL within NBA-style COVID pods in a select group of 2-3 cities isn’t realistic, as Amy Trask pointed out in The Athletic last spring.

Building in-city COVID pods would be a challenge, but it should be doable.

For the record, yours truly is neither a Dr. nor a logistics specialist, so I don’t offer this as an expert opinion. But in my mind, an in-city COVID pod would look like this:

  • All players and all coaches would live in a designated hotel
  • So all scouts, doctors, trainers, front office staff and support staff who interact with players
  • Team personnel in the COVID pod would be confined to the hotel or team headquarters
  • Staff working at the hotels in question would isolate within the COVID pod
  • So would the workers who would transport team members to and from the facilities
  • Staff for the team’s charter flights would either isolate within the pod or quarantine several days before transport
  • In each NFL city, a hotel for visiting teams would be designated and run as a COVID Pod

Would this be complicated? Absolutely. Would it be possible to create 32 “air-tight” pods that completely insulated the NFL COVID contagion? No, it would be impossible. Would this cause hardship and disruptions for players whose families live with them in Pittsburgh and the other 31 cities? Certainly. Would the NFLPA accept this? Not without a fight they wouldn’t.

If that is clear then it is also clear that the NFL’s current virtual bubble strategy that worked well enough in August through October, is no longer sufficient.

Let’s repeat the stat from above:

  • The Baltimore Ravens have 18 players on their COVID 19 list.
  • The Steelers have 5, plus at least 2 coaches.
  • Both numbers could increase before Tuesday’s game.

The cost and practical implications building 32 COVID pods cannot be underestimated. NFL players are not going to isolated inside a Red Roof Inn. But the NFL’s 2019 annual revenue was pegged at 8.1 billion dollars. And given unemployment rates and the general state of the economy, something tells me the NFL could find hotels willing to be bought out for several weeks, and staffers willing to isolate.

  • The disruption to player’s lives is more problematic.

NFL players need to get their kids to school, prepare meals, and help with homework just like any other parents. That’s hard enough under normal circumstances. Perhaps one solution would be to give families the option to join players inside the COVID Bubble.

  • Players without families would pose another challenge.

Back in June when the NBA was looking at bubbling, Yahoo! Sports columnist Doug McIntyre brought up one concern voiced by Dr. Dara Kass to argued: “You’re literally taking a bunch of virile athletes and saying, ‘You will be celibate for six weeks.’” Doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

In fact, it sounds downright impractical. Until you consider that Ohio Class nuclear submarines typically operate on a 70 day patrol cycle. So until recently, all male submarine crews routinely survived 70 tours under the water in the ultimate COVID pod for decades – and for a lot less money and glory than their NFL brethren.

If they did it, then I’m sure Ben Roethlisberger, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt will too.

Pivoting to in-city COVID pods is a disruptive, drastic measure, but these are drastic times.

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Saying Goodbye: Steelers Cut Eli Rogers, Trade Jerald Hawkins to Reach 53 Man Limit

The Pittsburgh Steelers made their roster cut downs yesterday and while Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did not unload any major surprises on the fan base, the team did part way with two veterans.

  • The biggest and perhaps most difficult move was the decision to cut veteran wide receiver Eli Rogers.

Eli Rogers joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2015, spent the year on injured reserve, and emerged as their starting slot receiver by the end of training camp in 2016. By season’s end, Eli Rogers was their defacto number 2 wide out.

Eli Rogers, Eli Rogers free agent

Eli Rogers in 2017. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

That role was probably a step too big for Rogers, but no one can deny that Rogers 48 catches and 3 touchdowns equaled phenomenal production for a player that few fans had even heard of going into August. In 2017 Eli Roger’s production dipped, thanks largely to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant‘s presence, but Eli Rogers played extremely well in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, as Ben Roethlisberger connected with him on all five attempts.

However, Eli Rogers did well grabbing 12 of 14 balls thrown his way during the season’s final 3 weeks, as Rogers gave the Steelers a legitimate 3rd wide receiver. Going into training camp, Eli Rogers was seen as competing with Ryan Switzer for a roster spot. While this writer asserts that Eli Rogers is a better wide out than Switzer, Switzer is a better return man, and with James Washington and Donte Moncrief that’s a trade off the Steelers can afford to make.

Steelers Trade Jerald Hawkins to Tampa Bay

The Steelers also traded Jerald Hawkins to Tampa Bay, exchanging a 7th round pick and Hawkins for Tampa Bay’s 6th round pick. The Steelers of course drafted Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Hawkins had a strong training camp, only to get injured in the Steelers preseason win over the New Orleans Saints.

Hawkins would be back in 2017, only to get injured in spring practices in 2018. Word was he was not fully recovered going into 2019 and effectively found himself behind undrafted rookie free agents.

Credit Kevin Colbert for getting a 6th round pick for a player that the Steelers were going to cut anyway.

Other Steelers Who Got a Visit from “The Turk”

The Steelers cut a host of other players to reach the roster limit. Those cuts included:

Quarterback:
Devlin Hodges

Running Backs:
Trey Edmunds, Travon McMillian and Malik Williams,

Wide Receivers:
Trey Griffey, Johnny Holton, Tevin Jones, Brandon Reilly, Eli Rogers and Diontae Spencer

Tight Ends:
Micky Crum, Kevin Rader, Christian Scotland-Williamson and Trevor Wood

Offensive Line:
Garrett Brumfield, Derwin Gray, J.C. Hassanauer, Patrick Morris and Damian Prince

Defensive Backs:
Marcus Allen, Dravon Askew-Henry, Marcelis Branch, Jhvonte Dean, P.J. Locke and Trevon Mathis

Linebackers:
Jayrone Elliott, Christian Kuntz, Tegray Scales, Sutton Smith and Robert Spillane

Defensive Linemen:
Winston Craig, Greg Gilmore, Henry Mondeaux, Casey Sayles and Conor Sheehy

Both Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry held off their respective  challenges from Matthew Wright and Ian Berryman.

Marcus Allen, Derwin Gray, Trey Edmunds, Patrick Morris, Christian Scotland-Williamson, Kevin Rader, Robert Spillane have already returned to the Steelers practice squad. One spot remains open, and Jim Wexell points out, it could be filled by either Sutton Smith or Johnny Holton.

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Steelers 2019 Draft Needs @ Offensive Line – Can Pittsburgh Afford to Take a Pass?

The offensive line has been perhaps the most decorated and lauded unit for the Steelers over the last several seasons.

With the help of offensive line coach (and guru) Mike Munchak, the unit has gone from one of weakness to one of great strength. In addition to taking his high-pedigreed charges to a new level, Munchak was able to flesh out the talents of projects and unrestricted free agents. Unfortunately, Mike Munchak left to take the same job with the Broncos following the 2018 season. However, Shaun Sarrett, his trusted assistant for several years, was promoted and is highly-thought of by his linemen, the guys he’ll now be teaching and instructing in 2019.

David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2012 first round draft pick

David DeCastro blocking for Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via kickoff coverage.com

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers will be entering the 2019 season with Alejandro Villanueva starting at left tackle, Ramon Foster starting at left guard, perennial Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey starting at center, the almost as decorated David DeCastro starting at right guard and Matt Feiler starting at right tackle. The only difference from the beginning of the 2018 campaign is the absence of right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was shipped off to the Cardinals in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Fortunately for the Steelers, Feiler, an undrafted free agent out of Bloomsburg in 2014, started 10 games in place of an injured Gilbert a year ago and more than held his own with no noticeable drop-off in performance from the right side. Therefore, the Steelers offensive line, one that has been considered among the best in the NFL for quite some time, should remain a strength in 2019, provided there are no serious injuries.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

One of the ways Munchak earned such a great reputation in Pittsburgh was, again, his ability to take so-called lesser talents and turn them into starters–or more. Villanueva, who has made two straight Pro Bowls after entering the NFL as an undrafted defensive lineman, is one such example. Feiler is another one. How about B.J. Finney, a 2015 undrafted free agent out of Kansas State?

The jury is still out on whether or not he’ll ever be a decorated starter. But his reputation as a super-sub is well-earned after starting a combined nine games at center and guard since joining the Steelers in 2016. Speaking of super-subs, Okorafor Chukwuma, a third-round choice out of Western Michigan last year, is actually expected to challenge Feiler for the starting job at right tackle this summer.

If it’s a competitive battle, Pittsburgh figures to have a very reliable backup that can play both tackle positions in whoever comes out on the losing end. R.J. Prince, Joe Cheek, J.C. Hassenauer, Zach Banner, Patrick Morris and Jerald Hawkins make up the rest of the offensive line’s depth chart. The most notable name on that aforementioned list is Hawkins, a tackle and fourth-round pick out of LSU in the 2016 NFL Draft. He’s been severely limited by injury thus far, appearing in only five games. Hawkins is a virtual unknown at this point, and the 2019 training camp figures to be his last chance to prove himself.

The Steelers 2019 Offensive Line Draft Needs

The average age of the starters is approximately 30, these days.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

As for the backups, again, there are only two that inspire much confidence. Having said that, however, the needs along the offensive line don’t appear to be anywhere near dire. Therefore, the draft priority must be considered Low-Moderate

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Marcus Gilbert’s Steelers Career Ends as Pittsburgh Trades Him to Arizona for 6th Round Pick

The Steelers have made the trade! No, not THAT trade, the one involving Antonio Brown. Instead the Steelers have traded offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert to the Arizona Cardinals for a 6th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

  • Some sort of roster move involving Marcus Gilbert was expected, although a trade is a mild surprise.

Marcus Gilbert missed the last 11 games of the 2018 season due to injury after missing nine games during 2017 due to injury and suspension. Gilbert was in the final year of the contract he signed in 2015 and was due to make $4.9 million dollars, and it has been speculated that Marcus Gilbert could be a cap casualty.

That speculation turns out to be correct.

Marcus Gilbert, Marcus Gilbert trade

Marcus Gilbert starting for the Steelers vs the Chiefs in 2018. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Marcus Gilbert Trade Completes Phase of Cycle Begun in 2011

The day was September 11th, 2011, the venue was Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium and the result was one of the most humiliating defeats of the Mike Tomlin era. After defeating the Baltimore Ravens in 4 straight contests, including 3 in 2010, the Ravens struck back decimating the Steelers in the Debacle in Baltimore.

  • This was the game that prompted Warren Sapp to declare the Steelers “Old, Slow and Done.”

During the game the Steelers lost Willie Colon for the year as the starting offensive tackle tore his triceps. The Steelers had played “Plug and Patch” on their offensive line up until that point in the Tomlin era. Many assumed the Steelers would look to either resign Max Starks or Flozell Adams, both of whom had been with the club in 2010 and cut during the summer.

  • Flozell Adams did in fact offer his services to the team, but the price was too steep.

The Steelers would again take the Red Phone to Max Starks, but that move came in October, when it became clear that Jonathan Scott was in over his head and woefully unable to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side.

The Steelers instead announced that Marcus Gilbert would start at right tackle. The decision was important because it signaled the Steelers commitment building a sustainable offensive line. And while injures kept him off of the field for much of 2012, he’s held down the position ever since, aside from rotating with Kelvin Beachum for a bit during the beginning of 2013.

And while that commitment continues, trading Marcus Gilbert ends a phase of that cycle.

Remembering the “Gilbertings”

Marcus Gilbert deserves to be remembered as a player who provided the Pittsburgh Steelers with quality play at right tackle, helping stabilize a position and an offensive line that had under gone tremendous turmoil during Mike Tomlin’s first 4 or 5 seasons.

  • Yet fate was not always kind to those who played close to Marcus Gilbert.

During the 2012 preseason, Marcus Gilbert fell on David Johnson and David DeCastro, injuring both men and costing David Johnson the season in which he was to transition to becoming a full time fullback. Later on, during the 2015 season, Marcus Gilbert landed on Landry Jones, ending the young quarterback’s first start after just a handful of snaps.

Steelers Offensive Line Remains in Solid Shape

As the Steelers learned during the first half of the Mike Tomlin era, “You can never have enough good offensive lineman.” And $4.9 million dollars, is not a lot of money to pay a quality offensive tackle.

But Matt Feiler did an excellent job of filling in for Gilbert in 2018, as did 2018’s 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor. The Steelers will also bring back 2016’s 4th round pick Jerald Hawkins.

Steel Curtain Rising would like to thank Marcus Gilbert for 8 years of quality play for the Pittsburgh Steelers and wishes him well with the Arizona Cardinals.

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Why Steelers Chukwuma Okorafor is Probably Pittsburgh’s Most Important 3rd Round Pick in 2018

If you’re like most Pittsburgh Steelers fans, you’re surely super-excited about what quarterback Mason Rudolph, their third-round pick out of Oklahoma State, will look like all throughout training camp and during the preseason action that kicks off next Thursday evening in Philadelphia against the Super Bowl champion Eagles.

But while Mason Rudolph might be the most watched Steelers third string quarterback in history (can Mason Rudolph be a true heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger?), it’s that the Steelers other third round pick–offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor out of Western Michigan–who people should probably be paying attention to this summer, as his early development could save the Steelers bacon in 2018.

After the departure of super-swing tackle Chris Hubbard, who left as a free agent after saving the Steelers bacon the previous two seasons while filling in for the injured/suspended Marcus Gilbert, Pittsburgh’s tackle depth seemed especially thin behind Gilbert at right tackle and Alejandro Villanueva over on the left side.

And when 2016 fourth-round pick Jerald Hawkins suffered a season-threatening torn quadriceps during offseason OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and was placed on Injured Reserve, the uncertainty was palpable.

  • After all, injuries happen in the NFL, and the offensive line is certainly not immune to it.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see Chukwuma Okorafor getting so many first-team reps in-place of an injured Villanueva early on at training camp, and when you get first-team reps on a line as accomplished as Pittsburgh’s, rookie or not, you better make the most of it.

“When you are playing with such a good unit, raise your game up a little bit more,” Okorafor revealed to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamski.

One of the questions some scouts reportedly had about Chukwuma Okorafor coming out of college was that he lacked a mean-streak. And this is why it was so impressive to hear about the scuffle he had with reserve outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo on the first day in shoulders pads last weekend.

  • If it’s toughness people are questioning, maybe they shouldn’t question it anymore?

But mean and tough or nice, but can Chukwuma Okorafor take his raw potential that includes a 6’6″ and 320 pound frame and hone it into a good to great NFL offensive lineman?

“He’ll be fun to watch,” said Mike Munchak, the legendary Houston Oilers offensive lineman who may actually have an even greater reputation as an offensive line coach. “He can improve in so many areas because he hasn’t been exposed to a lot of things we do. So far, so good. He’s got the demeanor, the size, long arms.”

  • And in Mike Munchak, Chukwuma Okorafor will have the very best in the business teaching him the finer points of offensive tackle play at the professional level.

With Mike Munchak as his teacher and a decorated group of offensive lineman also showing him the way, Okorafor could be the Steelers 2018 draft pick that has the biggest impact on their success.

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Steelers Sign Ryan Malleck and Bryce Harris to Replace Jake McGree and Jerald Hawkins

Steelers OTAs have been costly as both reserve offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins and backup tight end Jake McGee were lost to season ending injuries. Kevin Colbert moved swiftly to fill the void by signing offensive tackle Bryce Harris and tight end Ryan Malleck.

  • It is of minor note that the Steelers turned to NFL veterans to replace Jerald Hawkins and Jake McGree’s places.

While the Steelers would have been expected to sign replacements, Kevin Colbert could have just as easily filled both spots with undrafted rookie free agents. However, Bryce Harris has been bouncing around the NFC South since 2012, when he made the New Orleans roster as an undrafted rookie free agent.

  • Per Pro Football Reference, Bryce Harris has appeared in 37 games with both the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, and is even listed as having started 4 games.

Ryan Malleck returns to Pittsburgh after spending 3 months on the Steelers 2017 off season roster from February to May. After getting cut by the Steelers, Malleck spent time with the Ravens, and earned a spot on the Houston Texas active roster, where he saw action in two games, including catching one pass against the Steelers in Pittsburgh’s Christmas night win over the Texans.

Ryan Malleck, steelers sign ryan malleck, steelers vs texans

Ryan Malleck catches his lone NFL pass vs. Steelers. Photo Credit: Michael Wyke, AP via PennLive

The Steelers penciled in Jerald Hawkins as their 3rd/swing offensive tackle and heir apparent to Chris Hubbard. Third round draft pick Chukwuma Okorafor will get first shot at that job, but the Steelers have given Mike Munchak a bit of an insurance policy should Chukwuma Okorafor falter.

Jake McGee spent 2017 on the Steelers practice squad, where he drew rave reviews from Steelers 24/7 reporter Jim Wexell. The Steelers had expected Jake McGee to give Xavier Grimble a run at the third tight end position behind Vance McDonald and Jesse James.

The Steelers have another week of OTA’s remaining, followed by mandatory mini-camp. After that, the real off season begins until convening for training camp in July at St. Vincents in Latrobe.

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Steelers Jerald Hawkins Tears Quad in OTA’s, Could Miss Season

Sometimes, life is simply unfair. An so it is for the Steelers Jerald Hawkins who tore a quad in non-contact drills during Steelers OTA’s and the offensive tackle could miss the 2018 season if reports of ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler are correct.

  • IF this report turns out to be true, it would be the second bit of bad luck for Hawkins.

The Steelers drafted Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. By all accounts, Hawkins was having a strong training camp and looked solid in preseason. And the door was open for Hawkins to earn a real shot at playing time, with Kelvin Beachum having departed in free agency, and the Steelers having little proven depth behind Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle.

Jerald Hawkins, Steelers 2016 4th round draft pick

Steelers 2016 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins

But in an otherwise sterling outing for the Steelers against the New Orleans Saints in preseason, Hawkins got injured and spent his rookie season on IR.

Hawkins had a more difficult time during his second summer in Latrobe, and never mounted serious challenge to unseat Chris Hubbard as the Steelers swing tackle behind Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert. However, as the season wore on, Hawkins saw spot duty as an extra tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy Package.”

The Steelers saw enough in Hawkins to let Chris Hubbard depart in free agency, although it is doubtful that Pittsburgh’s salary cap situation would have allowed them to make a serious play to keep Hubbard in the Steel City.

Anyone Still Wonder Why Steelers Drafted Chukwuma Okorafor?

With all five starters playing on their second NFL contracts, and B.J. Finney and Matt Feiler having proven themselves as compotent backups, the Steelers offensive line was not considered a prime need heading into the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Yet, as the old adage goes, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

The Steelers have learned that lesson the hard way more than once in the Mike Tomlin era, but it appears it is a lesson Pittsburgh’s brain trust has taken to heart. In spite of, a need to upgrade their defense and despite having drafted James Washington and Mason Rudolph in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, the Steelers opted to draft Chukwuma Okorafor, and offensive tackle out of West Michigan with their second 3rd round pick.

In reporting on the Jerald Hawkins injury, 24/7 Sports Jim Wexell shared the observation by Marcus Gilbert that Chukwuma Okorafor is “….learning real fast. He’s probably the most ready rookie that we’ve had, talent-wise.”

Let’s hope that Chukwuma Okorafor remains a quick learner.

OTA Injuries Rare, But Not Unheard Of

OTA’s are, as Mike Tomlin loves to remind us, “Football in shorts.” Guys wear helmets but no pads and are not supposed to make contact. Yet injuries occur.

In May of 1998, Chad Scott was coming off his rookie year and while attempt to defend a Mike Tomczak pass, landed on Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf and tore his ACL, costing him the season and forcing Carnell Lake to play cornerback in his final season in Pittsburgh.

Two years ago news of Senquez Golson’s MRI caused a stir, although it was not on Golson’s previously injured shoulder, only a “lower body soft tissue injury.” No one ever linked that to the Lisfranc injury that ended the Steelers 2015 2nd round draft pick’s sophomore season, but it certainly served as a harbinger for things to come.

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Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs – Time for Pittsburgh Reinforce Depth

You can criticize Billy Cowher’s drafting record with both Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert on many grounds. However, no one can fault The Chin for failing to take offensive line seriously in the NFL draft.

  • Almost without exception, throughout his tenure, Bill Cowher invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman.

He didn’t do that in his final draft, and neither did Mike Tomlin in his first 3 drafts (well, OK they did take Kraig Urbik with one of their 3rds in the 2009 NFL Draft.) Then, when the consequences of playing “Plug and Patch” on the offensive line began to take their toll on Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers invested two firsts and 2 second round picks on offensive line between 2010 and 2012.

The 2012 NFL Draft was five years ago, and the Steelers haven’t drafted an offensive lineman higher than Jerald Hawkins in the 4th since then. Should Steelers change their approach to offensive line in the 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s see.

David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs

David DeCastro blocks for Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via kickoff coverage.com

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starters

One of the reasons why the Steelers haven’t invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman since 2012 is because they haven’t had to. Yes, other positions have beckoned, but each of the Steelers starting offensive lineman is working on his second contract, and that is no accident.

The Steelers offensive line rebuild began with Maurkice Pouncey in 2010 and each and every year that he’s been health since then he’s been Pro Bowler. Marcus Gilbert came next and is regarded in the franchise as one of the best at his positions. David DeCastro fell to the Steelers in the 2012 NFL Draft, and David DeCastro is a legitimate Pro Bowl guard who adds the necessary streak of nasty to the line.

  • While these high-pedigree draft picks have delivered, they’ve got good company by men overlooked on draft day.

Ramon Foster joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and was starting in the Super Bowl a year later. The Steelers looked to replace Foster in a number of ways, but Foster continues to hold his own. Starting next to Foster is Alejandro Villanueva, the former US Army Ranger and West Point graduate that the Steelers picked up after the Eagles dropped him from their practice squad.

The man standing the curtain is Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who might be the best position coach of any type in the NFL.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

The Steelers offensive line depth took a hit when Chris Hubbard signed with the Cleveland Browns this spring as a free agent, but franchise still has solid backups it can count on. Leading the pack is B.J. Finney, who has started at both center and guard and acquitted himself well.

At tackle the Steelers have Jerald Hawkins. Hawkins missed his rookie year due to injury, and struggled through his second training camp. However, he saw action in 2017 as a 3rd tight end. Finally, the Steelers bring back Matt Feiler, and exclusive rights free agent who has seen action in 6 NFL games.

Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it? Is that how the old adage goes?

The truth is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best if not the best offensive lines in the NFL. And, after all the years of offensive line turmoil the characterized the early part of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, it a bit ironic that Steelers Nation has come to take quality offensive line play for granted.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Complacency can cripple a contenders quest to transform itself into a champion.

To understand how that applies here, perform this little exercise. How old is the Steelers offensive line? You’re probably sitting there thinking, “Oh, we have a young offensive line, that’s one of the thing that’s so exciting about it.” Well, that was true for several seasons, today, not so much.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell draws out this point:

The average age of the Steelers’ starting offensive line on opening day will be 29.8. That’s quite older than the much respected 2005 championship line that averaged 27.6 years of age and fell apart soon thereafter.

Ramon Foster might be the only lineman above 30 now, but Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva turn 30 this year. Sometimes, father time imposes his will quickly.

No one really pegged the 2001 Steelers secondary as old when they fell short in the AFC Championship, yet Bill Belichick saw enough to know he could throw the ball throughout the entire 2nd half the 2002 opener, and there was nothing Pittsburgh could do to stop him.

That doesn’t mean there are ominous storm clouds hanging above the Steelers offensive line in the immediate future. But the Steelers would be very wise to add to their pipeline of offensive line talent, and therefore the Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs must be considered Moderate.

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Steelers Sign Jordan Berry and Matt Feiler to One Year Contracts

The Steelers made two moves ahead of free agency this past week when they signed offensive tackle Matt Feiler and punter Jordan Berry to one year contract extensions.

  • The Jordan Berry signing comes as a bit of a surprise.

Jordan Berry signed with the Steelers in 2015 and beat out fellow Australian Brad Wing during training camp. With three years of service in the league, Berry was due to become a restricted free agent, and could have held out for a restricted-free agent tender from the Steelers.

  • Berry however, chose to skip the process and sign with the Steelers now.

Jordan Berry’s gross punting average of 43.2 yards per punt ranks him last 32nd among NFL punters. However, Berry’s net average of 39.8 is good enough to get him out of the basement, and ranks him as 24th.

Jordan Berry, Steelers Jordan Berry

Jordan Berry punting during the 2015 preseason. Photo Credit: John Heller, Post-Gazette

However, as Chris Adamski of the Tribune-Review points out, “Only two of Berry’s 64 punts were touchbacks; 26 pinned a team inside its 20-yard line.”

That’s an indication of some pretty good directional punting, which can be far more valuable than sheer distance in today’s NFL.While you obviously want to have as good a punter as you can, but if there’s one position that you don’t want to overrate, it is that of the punter. Numbers don’t lie:

Steelers Punters, Steelers punting averages

Quality punting hasn’t correlated very strongly with Super Bowl wins for the Steelers. And, as you can see, Harry Newsome’s punting average in 1988 was almost 5 yards above the NFL average, yet it didn’t help the Steelers avoid their worst season since 1970.

Feiler Returns to Back up Gilbert and Villanueva

The Matt Feiler signing is largely an academic exercise. Feiler was set to become an exclusive rights free agent this march, which essentially means he would have had to sign with the Steelers provided they made him a veteran minimum offer.

Feiler has been in the league since 2014, when he latched on with the Houston Texans as an undrafted rookie free agent. He spent 2014 on Houston’s practice squad, but got cut before the start of the season, where he joined the Steelers 2015 practice squad.

The Steelers kept Felier on the practice squad throughout 2015 and he started 2016 on the practice squad where he was activated in October, although he did not see action. In 2017, Felier made the Steelers 53 man roster and appeared in 5 games, including a start in the season finale against the Browns.

  • The move was expected given that the Steelers are facing the impending departure of Chris Hubbard.

Pittsburgh also has Jerald Hawkins signed as a reserve offensive tackle behind Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva, so unless things very awry, don’t expect to see Matt Feiler protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side or opening holes for Le’Veon Bell (or might it be James Conner….)

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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NFL Suspends Marcus Gilbert for Four Games. The Bright Side? Steelers Decision on Cam Sutton Just Got Easier

The big story leading into the week following the Steelers Thursday Night trashing of the Tennessee Titans was who would lose their roster spot when the Steelers activated rookie cornerback Cam Sutton from IR. Of course the story took an unexpected twist before the day ended….

Marcus Gilbert, NFL suspends Marcus Gilbert, Mike Mitchell, Steelers vs Rams

Marcus Gilbert celebrates with Mike Mitchell during the Steelers 2015 win at St. Louis. Photo Credit: Rob Cornforth, UPI

On Steel City Insider, writer Jim Wexell focused on L.J. Fort whose been cut and resigned several times and Daniel McCullers, who hasn’t been active yet. He also mentioned backup tackles Matt Feiler and Jerald Hawkins. And on his message board, most of the talk focused on the backup tackles. The fact that the Steelers added offensive tackle Jake Rogers only fueled that fire.

Yet, as the day wore on and the debate developed,  Wexell cautioned:

Jim Wexell’s works on Steelers backup tackles proved to be prophetic

Now we know why.

The NFL suspended Marcus Gilbert for 4 games for use of performance enhancers, meaning the Chris Hubbard will need to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s right side in the Steelers up coming matchups with Green Bay, Cincinnati, Baltimore and yes, New England.

Gilbert issued a statement via Twitter:

While Chris Hubbard already started 6 games this season, the Marcus Gilbert’s suspension deprives the Steelers of one of their best lineman during the stretch run. Gilbert will not appeal the suspension, an appeal which could have impacted his availability for the playoffs. Either way, the move will cost Gilbert:

There is a bright side to the story, however. With Marcus Gilbert off the roster for four weeks, the Steelers will not have to release anyone to activate Cam Sutton from the injured reserve list. The Steelers of course drafted Cam Sutton in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Sutton spent most of 2017’s training camp out injured, but saw playing time in both the Steelers 3rd and 4th preseasons games and made the final 53 man roster, only to be put on IR. Sutton began practicing with the Steelers 3 weeks ago, and Pittsburgh must decide to activate him or leave him on IR for the rest of the season.

While expecting Cam Sutton to come in and contribute immediately is highly unrealistic, Joe Haden is out with a broken leg, leaving the Steelers shorthanded at cornerback with only William Gay and Brian Allen behind Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns.

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