It's May. The cold, miserable winter finally looks to have ended and with Spring comes the post-NFL Draft period, rookie mini-camps, and offseason workouts that will help the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff and front office evaluate new talent - both rookies and free agents - in order to field a competitive team once the season really kicks off. The Steelers have made some interesting moves that appear to indicate that they're intent on adding depth at several positions along the offensive line, which is a nice insurance policy to set before official training camp has even begun.
The Steelers addressed some of the offensive line depth by drafting Chukwuma Okorafor and also by bringing in free agents Ikenna Nwokeji, Larson Graham and Joseph Cheek before adding offensive tackle Jake Rodgers, who was claimed off of waivers from the Houston Texans on Wednesday, giving the former seventh-round pick in 2015 (Atlanta Falcons) a third stint with the team. Rodgers spent two previous periods with Pittsburgh on the scout team/practice squad (May 5 - Sept. 20, Oct. 18 - Nov. 6, 2017 and then again on Nov. 20 through Dec. 21, 2017 after he was released by the Los Angeles Chargers).
With Alejandro Villanueva, Marcus Gilbert, Jerald Hawkins and Matt Feiler already on the roster at tackle, some would wonder why the Steelers would want to look at other guys. One reason is that Gilbert, an eight-year veteran suffered an injury last season that forced Chris Hubbard - signed to the Cleveland Browns during the offseason to a very nice deal - to become a starter. Especially because Gilbert was suspended as a result of using a banned substance; whether it was to recover from the injury or not was irrelevant.
Another reason the Steelers would be interested is because of extremely shallow depth at offensive guard behind ten-year veteran Ramon Foster and seven-year vet David DeCastro. In fact, only rookie free agent Chris Schleuger was added as a "guard".
At center, only Maurkice Pouncey - who is entering his ninth season - has any real NFL experience. Both Parker Collins and Patrick Morris are untested young linemen listed at that position.
Several of the free agents have collegiate experience at multiple positions, however, making the Steelers' plans appear to be more than just the usual NFL teams adding 'camp bodies'. Rodgers (shown in photo above, no. 69) was a tight end that played across the offensive line (except at center) at Washington and then Eastern Washington, even though he was primarily used as a right tackle. Okorafor is a project at the next level due to his picking up American football after he and his family immigrated from Botswana, but played both right and left tackle at Western Michigan. Nwokeji is a converted high school defensive lineman who started all 45 games at Elon, earning accolades for his play on the offensive side of the ball. Schleuger was a prep fullback (West Hancock - Iowa) who ran for 76 touchdowns (5,452 rushing yards) that converted to the offensive line and played at Iowa Western, the University of Northern Iowa, and UAB. Collins was signed by the Los Angeles Rams as a UDFA in 2017 out of Appalachian State. He earned honors at center in 2016, but played left guard in both 2014-15. Cheek stayed exclusive to right guard, including while with the special teams unit, at Texas A&M, and has very minimal experience on the left side due to time with the Kansas City Chiefs (practice squad and SFA 2016, 2017), New Orleans Saints (UDFA 2016) and Cleveland Browns (SFA 2018).
Others the Steelers have brought in excelled at a specific position. Morris played center through high school and then at TCU (pictured above), earning several awards, including: Bruce Feldman's Top 20 "Freaks" in College Football, 2017 AP All-Bowl Team and was a 2017 William V. Campbell Trophy semi-finalist. Graham started every game in his collegiate career for the Duquesne Dukes at right tackle (46 in a row) and spent time with the Atlanta Falcons in 2017.
Hawkins and Feiler are still trying to show improvement and the ability to become a 'starter' with the Steelers, so they'll have some competition in doing so once Pittsburgh runs the free agents through Spring activities and determine who will move on to training camp.
Few football fans find the offensive line to be as exciting as a flashy deep-threat receiver, strong-armed quarterback or sure-footed, blazing-fast running back. For that reason, the guys in the trenches don't generate much interest until a franchise quarterback gets sacked four times in a game, the run game never gets going, or opposing defenses push them all over the backfield.
Mike Munchak is a top-tier coach that has developed the Steelers' offensive line into one of the most-respected in the league. He'll get an opportunity to run new faces through the gauntlet, plugging them in at different spots along the line to test their abilities to become NFL-ready linemen. It is a quiet, but very intelligent, move on the part of the Steelers to deepen the roster without breaking the bank; allowing guys to show what they have to offer to a Pittsburgh team that could very well run the AFC North during the 2018 NFL regular season right into the post-season.