You could view it as an apprenticeship, and the program has yielded wonderful results. Recent graduates include Alejandro Villanueva and Chris Hubbard, and rookie Chuks Okorafor seems to be progressing nicely through it so far in 2018.
There is no such thing as an apprentice program in the NFL, but the Steelers have created one for young offensive tackles, and it allows them to do some learning on the job as they work to develop into highly-paid starters in the NFL. Villanueva earned his full-time job with the Steelers after showing himself to be a capable fill-in for an injured Kelvin Beachum, who then left as an unrestricted free agent; and Hubbard signed with the Cleveland Browns as an unrestricted free agent, where he's now the starting right tackle.
But both players first passed through the same Steelers apprenticeship program in which Okorafor is currently enrolled, and it's one that is preparing the rookie for extensive playing time should he be needed this season in the case of injury.
"I've been pleased with his growth," Coach Mike Tomlin said about Okorafor during his weekly news conference today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "The good thing – and it's one of the reasons why we take the thoughtful approach that we do with young swing tackles – we play them at tight end some. And we've played (Okorafor) at tight end some. So he gets to report as eligible, and gets some in-game experience. We've done it over the years. We've done it with Villanueva, we've done it with Hubbard and others. It's a way for a young, developing tackle to get in-game experience and play some. If he's called upon it won't be the first time he's played for us, and we'll expect him to play varsity ball."
Okorafor could be called upon as soon as this weekend's game in Denver against the Broncos, because the knee injury that has caused Marcus Gilbert to miss the last four games might not be all that much better this week, and Tomlin revealed today that Matt Feiler is dealing with a pectoral injury.
"I wouldn't describe it as a setback," said Tomlin about Gilbert's lingering issues with his knee. "It's probably not healing as fast as he or we would like, but that's life. I wouldn't describe it as a setback, no."
With Gilbert sidelined, Feiler has been starting at right tackle, and the Steelers have won four in a row with him at that spot, but his name popped up on Tomlin's injury update today.
According to Tomlin, Feiler is dealing with a pectoral issue, and while it didn't cause him to miss any snaps in Jacksonville it has become something the team is monitoring in an effort to prevent it from becoming more serious.
"We work our tails off to minimize (injuries)," said Tomlin. "To be smart about how we work our guys – hard and smart – but we acknowledge injuries are a part of the game, and to a degree you have no control over that. That's why you spend the time that you do readying everyone. That's why you spend time acknowledging that we're going to need contributions from everyone, guys like Jordan Dangerfield in different situations to get jobs done."
In one other injury-related development, Tomlin said Anthony Chickillo sustained an ankle injury late in the game in Jacksonville. He also indicated that rookie outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi could become one of the Steelers IR-designated to return players and join the team for practice on Wednesday.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Some of the injury things: We'll see how Marcus Gilbert (knee) is. We'll let his availability be our guide. I don't know that he'll work (Wednesday), but we'll see how he feels in the morning. The same could be said for Stephon Tuitt (elbow). We had a couple of injuries in-game that should slow some guys at the early portions of the week. We'll see how it goes. Anthony Chickillo – I think you saw him on the ground at the end of a special teams play at the end of the game with an ankle (injury). I know he's been working hard, and we'll see what the early portions of the week look like for him. And Matt Feiler has a pectoral injury that he has been working on downstairs (in the training room). It didn't limit him in any of his snaps in-game, but we want to watch him as we get into the week and see what it does to his availability at the front part of the week."