By: Zach Metkler, The Burgh Blog Writer
The other day, I took a look at the tight end depth chart and gave my analysis of how the roster will likely turn out by the start of the season. Now, I will continue my breakdown series by looking at one of the most improved units on the team in recent memory: the Offensive Line.
Players on Roster:
-#53 Maurkice Pouncey (6’4″, 304 lbs.; 26 years old; 7 years experience; Florida)
-#72 Cody Wallace (6’4″, 296 lbs.; 31 years old; 7 years experience; Texas A&M)
-#67 B.J. Finney (6’4″, 318 lbs.; 24 years old; 1 year experience; Kansas State)
-#73 Ramon Foster (6’5″, 328 lbs.; 30 years old; 8 years experience; Tennessee)
-#66 David DeCastro (6’5”, 316 lbs.; 26 years old; 5 years experience; Stanford)
-#74 Chris Hubbard (6’4”, 295 lbs.; 25 years old; 3 year experience; UAB)
-#64 Cole Manhart (6’4″, 298 lbs.; 23 years old; 1 year experience; Nebraska-Kearney)
-#77 Marcus Gilbert (6’6″, 330 lbs.; 28 years old; 6 years experience; Florida)
-#78 Alejandro Villanueva (6’9″, 320 lbs.; 27 years old; 2 years experience; Army)
-#68 Ryan Harris (6’5″, 302 lbs.; 31 years old; 9 years experience; Notre Dame)
-#65 Jerald Hawkins (6’6″, 305 lbs.; 22 years old; rookie; LSU)
-#69 Brian Mihalik (6’9″, 302 lbs.; 23 years old; 1 year experience; Boston College)
-#71 Matt Feiler (6’6″, 330 lbs.; 23 years old; 1 year experience; Bloomsburg)
Undrafted Free Agents/Tryouts:
-#61 Quinton Schooley (6’4″, 298 lbs.; 22 years old; rookie; North Carolina State)
In 2009, the Steelers had been barely getting by with an atrocious offensive line, that was among the worst in the league. That began to change when in the 2010 NFL Draft, the Steelers used their first round selection to take the top center in college football: Maurkice Pouncey. Since then, the Steelers have used an assortment of high round draft selections to help bolster their offensive line:
-2011 2nd Round Pick OT Marcus Gilbert
-2012 1st Round Pick OG David DeCastro
-2012 2nd Round Pick OT Mike Adams
The Steelers also selected OT Kelvin Beachum in the 7th round of the 2012 draft. The main issue was that they didn’t have a coach to help them reach their full potential. Enter Mike Munchak in 2014. A 2001 Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection as an offensive lineman, has been widely considered one of the best offensive line coaches in the league. Now entering his 3rd season as the OL Coach of the Steelers, the offensive line ranks among the best in the league. When healthy, Pouncey is one of the top centers in the league and was the best offensive lineman on the team. While there is no denying his talent, there might be a new sheriff in town with the emergence of OG David DeCastro, who was selected as a Pro Bowler and a 1st Team All-Pro for the first time in his career and his arrow is pointing up more than almost any player on the roster. Beside him, Marcus Gilbert will again man his starting right tackle spot. After a somewhat disappointing start to his career (even though he was the Steelers rookie of the year for the 2011 season), Gilbert seems to have finally grown into the player that the team envisioned when taking him in the 2nd round of the 2011 draft. Although he never became the premier left tackle that many thought he would, last season saw him become one of the leagues top right tackles and there are almost certainly Pro Bowls in the former Gators’ future.
One the left side, Ramon Foster will return to his starting spot after signing a 3-year deal in the offseason to remain in Pittsburgh. The former undrafted free agent has been one of the most stable presences on the offensive line as a leader, both on and off the field. Next to Foster, things are a little less clear. At left tackle, one of the most watched battles of preseason will take place after the departure of Beachum, who signed with the Jaguars during free agency. Alejandro Villanueva took over last season for Beachum and performed better than most people expected. Even with his performance, the Steelers decided to sign Ryan Harris away from the Denver Broncos to compete with Villanueva for the starting left tackle spot. Both players have the ability so play either tackle spot so whichever player loses the position battle will likely serve as the teams swing tackle, especially after the Steelers released Mike Adams during the offseason.
Beyond these players, most of the depth will likely remain the same. Center Cody Wallace was the starter for the entire season after Pouncey went down with his 2nd season ending injury in 3 years. Although he is not as talented as Pouncey, Wallace performed well and has the grit and knowledge that you look for in a veteran backup and will almost certainly retain his backup spot at center, while also having the versatility to play guard if needed. Chris Hubbard will also return as a versatile center, guard, and tackle and saw time in relief last season and also played well for a backup lineman coming off the bench, but his spot is a little less guaranteed than Wallace. One area that Hubbard has above every lineman on this roster is his versatility to play every position along the offensive line.
The team used their 4th Round pick this year on LSU OT Jerald Hawkins to compete for a backup spot. While he has some developing to do, Munchak feels that he has the tools to compete on both the right and left side of the line at tackle. While most draft experts had him pegged as a right tackle prospect, Munchak had Hawkins spending a lot of time at left tackle, which shouldn’t surprise anyone due to his athleticism and length. Add in the fact that the left tackle spot is wide open, Hawkins could push the guys ahead of him to get better and could even find himself as the long-term option as Big Ben’s blindside protector.
After Hawkins, the only relevant player is likely to be B.J. Finney, who was one of my favorite interior offensive linemen in the 2015 draft. Finney saw extensive action during the 2015 preseason and showed great potential before injuring his ankle in the final preseason game. After being one of the final cuts, he found a place on the Steelers practice squad, where the team clearly saw potential in him after giving him a raise from $6,600/week to $25,588/week, which is practically the going rate for active roster players. If Finney has another strong camp this year and continues to show flashes in the preseason, Finney could surprise some people and either replace Hubbard as the final lineman on the roster, make the roster alongside Hubbard, or be on the practice squad for one more season and become the eventual replacement to Wallace.
Expected Depth Chart:
1. Alejandro Villanueva (Starter)
2. Ryan Harris
3. Jerald Hawkins
1. Ramon Foster (Starter)
2. Chris Hubbard
3. B.J. Finney
1. Maurkice Pouncey (Starter)
2. Cody Wallace
3. B.J. Finney
1. David DeCastro (Starter)
2. Chris Hubbard
3. B.J. Finney
1. Marcus Gilbert (Starter)
2. Ryan Harris
3. Jerald Hawkins
Total Players Making the Roster: 10
The Steelers offensive line will be almost identical to last season, minus Beachum. When Pouncey is healthy, he will retain his starting center spot, with DeCastro, Foster, and Gilbert all having no competition to their starting positions. The only open spot (left tackle) will likely not be decided until before week 1, but based on his performance last year and how dedicated he has been during this offseason, I think Villanueva is the clear front-runner at this point. Harris will be an extremely valuable asset to the team this year and will likely see plenty of time on the field as the first man off the bench in relief. One thing that might surprise some people is my decision to keep 10 offensive lineman on the roster. My rationale with this is primarily due to the fact that the Steelers have had so many issues along the offensive line with injuries over the past few seasons that it is crucial for them to have players that can play in a moments notice. Wallace and Hubbard are both versatile, experienced lineman that have seen the field often over the past 2 seasons. Beyond them, Hawkins seems to have the coaching staff’s faith that he can turn into a special player and as a 4th round pick, he will likely have a spot on the final 53-man roster. The surprise pick here for me is Finney, who I believe will show the team enough to make a push as an extra lineman on the roster, especially with Pouncey’s injury still being up in the air. If it were not for a late preseason ankle injury last year, I feel that the Steelers would have had him on the 53-man roster. The fact that they gave him a huge raise as a practice squad player shows that they were confident enough to keep him around (and more importantly, off of another team that was likely trying to snag him away from the Steelers). It would be beneficial for the team to keep 10 lineman on the final roster this season just based on injury history, which should make fans very comfortable if (and when) the first lineman goes down with injury.
Coming up next: Defensive Line. Stay tuned!