General Manager Kevin Colbert typically kicks off each Steelers training camp with a media availability that covers a wide range of topics and procedures, while also filling in some of the gaps to help explain what the team did during the offseason and why those things were deemed important at the time. But no matter what Colbert was asked Tuesday, and then what his answer happened to be, a theme emerged and carried through the whole session.
And that theme was contained in four words within one of the first sentences he spoke into the microphone.
"The one thing we really want to think about and talk about is it's an unusual year."
"An unusual year.
That's a big statement, coming as it does following a year that was significantly impacted by COVID, to the degree that most regular season games were played in empty stadiums and some of those kicked off during the middle of the week.
But there can be no argument that "unusual" is an apt description for the kind of offseason it has been for the Steelers. It started with hammering out an agreement with Ben Roethlisberger to come to an agreement on his contract that would serve the dual purpose of bringing him back for his 18th season while also leaving the Steelers with sufficient resources to make the necessary personnel moves the offseason would require.
"To go back to what Ben did for us back in the spring, by taking a restructuring of his contract, which was done with really two purposes in mind," said Colbert. "The first – his being able to be here, and then also allowing us to do some things financially and-cap wise that we probably wouldn't have been able to do without that. It was a very unselfish move on his part."
The one area of the roster that could show the most change from last season to this season is the offensive line.
When the Steelers began their 2020 season as the early game on the opening Monday night of the season against the New York Giants, their starting offensive linemen (from left to right) were: Al Villanueva, Matt Feiler, Maurkice Pouncey, Steve Wisniewski, and Zach Banner.
Today, Villanueva and Feiler are playing for the Ravens and Chargers, respectively; Pouncey is retired; Wisniewski didn't even finish 2020 on the Steelers roster; and Banner is working his way back from an ACL injury he sustained before the opener against the Giants ended. Also, David DeCastro, with six Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro selections on his resume, was released during minicamp and might end up retiring after still more surgery to fix bone spurs in his ankle.
"We knew it was going to be a transitional period," said Colbert about the work that needed to be done on the offensive line. "Once Maurkice decided to retire, OK, that was one spot. We knew we were going to have trouble signing Al just based on where we were with our cap situation, and we had to make those types of decisions. Of course, David gave us another situation."
Colbert started filling the holes by bringing back B.J. Finney as an unrestricted free agent, and then a third-round pick was spent on Kendrick Green, who has a chance to open the regular season as the starting center. And the offensive tackle situation was something Colbert believed the team had in place but still needed some adjustment.
"When we scouted Chuks (Okorafor coming out of college), we thought he'd be a better left tackle, and last year he lost a competition to Zach Banner for the starting job at right tackle," said Colbert. "Had they been competing for left tackle, my guess is Chuks would have beat him out, and that's not to take anything away from Zach.
"Kevin Dotson, he's one of those young guys who has to prove he can play 17 games efficiently as a starter, and the center position is wide open. We have two veterans in J.C. Hassenauer and B.J. Finney, and of course with Kendrick Green jumping into the mix, that'll be an interesting battle. The right guard is Trai Turner, a former Pro Bowl player who's only 28 years old. Can he perform at that level this year for us? Time will tell. And we're excited to see Zach Banner return at that right tackle spot, because he earned it last year and then unfortunately had the injury.
"So we knew it was going to be a little bit of a mix and match, but we were comfortable with the group we had."
AN "UNUSUAL" PRESENCE AT THE HOF
Still under the "unusual" theme for this season, but in a decidedly good way, is the unprecedented Steelers presence in what will be two days' worth of induction ceremonies on Aug. 7-8 at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Five members of the Steelers organization will be inducted – Troy Polamalu, Bill Cowher, and Donnie Shell on Aug. 7 as part of the Centennial Class of 2020, with Alan Faneca and Bill Nunn representing the franchise on Aug. 8 as part of the Class of 2021.
"It's an exciting year for the organization from a Hall of Fame standpoint," said Colbert, "and that's a unique class of five individuals who really defined a lot of this organization's standards. Of course, the great Bill Nunn. Coach Cowher, Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca, and the great Donnie Shell. It's an exciting time. We get to play in the Hall of Fame Game (on Thursday, Aug. 5) against the Cowboys, who also have a few people going in, so we're really looking forward to that."