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Labriola on OTAs, where depth goes to die

Ready or not, here it comes:

• This is the way it happens in the NFL. The way depth disappears. The way competition thins. The way projects come due to be completed way earlier than expected.

• What began as just another day of the offseason program, OTA No. 5, turned into a bad day for the Steelers. The day had started with the team seemingly having some decent veteran depth along the offensive line and with an interesting situation developing at the bottom of their tight end depth chart, and it ended up with them having neither of those things.

• The Steelers had expected to lose swing tackle Chris Hubbard this offseason, because guys as versatile as him, as young as him, and who had played as well the previous couple of seasons as him just don’t last long in a league where there are more teams without two capable tackles than there are teams with three of them.

• When the inevitable happened and Hubbard signed for a reported $36.5 million, it was easy to be happy for him even though he signed with the Browns, simply because it’s football justice to see a good guy, a hard-working guy, a team guy, get paid.

• And while losing Hubbard stung, the Steelers had Jerald Hawkins waiting in the wings to be the top backup there, and they also had prepared themselves by using a third-round draft pick on Chuks Okorafor, a big, talented prospect from Western Michigan.

• The Steelers have a couple of quality NFL starters in Marcus Gilbert and Al Villanueva at opposite ends of the offensive line, and after this summer, which would’ve been a third training camp with Mike Munchak, Hawkins figured to be ready to step up and replace Hubbard while Okorafor took a redshirt season to watch and learn.

• That plan went into the dumper during OTA No. 5. “I didn’t see it,” said veteran Ramon Foster. “All I heard was (Hawkins) screaming.” Initially thought to be a knee injury, and then later reported to be a torn thigh muscle, either way the injury is a long-term situation that should be expected to remove Hawkins from the mix for months as opposed to weeks.

• In the interim, veteran Matt Feiler might expect to spend a little more time at tackle than at guard, and Okorafor can pretty much kiss his redshirt goodbye.

• Not long after Hawkins was taken off the field, the athletic trainers were back at it, this time administering to Jake McGee, a tight end who impressed with his physical style of blocking last summer at Saint Vincent College.

• After spending the 2017 season on the practice squad, McGee seemed to be poised for a battle for the No. 3 tight end job that was held last year by Xavier Grimble. Just before the start of the 2017 season, the Steelers traded for Vance McDonald, and they paired him with former fifth-round pick Jesse James at the top of the depth chart.

• Because McDonald’s base salary for 2018 is a reported $3.7 million, right now he could be characterized as the presumptive starter, with James as the No. 2. Because the Steelers didn’t draft a tight end, and only signed Pharoah McKever as an undrafted rookie and Christian Scotland-Williamson as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program, McKee didn’t seem to have to worry about being lost in the shuffle this summer.

• But with his injury being reported as a torn Achilles, McKee’s run at a roster spot in 2018 looks to have been sidetracked.

• Scotland-Williamson has attracted some attention, what with his size for the position – 6-foot-9, 274 pounds – and his background in rugby with the Worcester Warriors. In a way, social media had a hand in bringing Scotland-Williamson to football, because one of the 23 appearances he made for the Warriors from 2014-17 included a tackle he made that went viral.

• The tackle has been viewed over 42,000 times on YouTube, and it’s somewhat ironic that Scotland-Williamson will try to carve out a career for himself in football by playing a position in which opponents will be trying to tackle him, not the other way around.

• “I made one big tackle that went viral in the UK,” Scotland-Williamson told Dale Lolley. “From there, my name was mentioned in the right circles. They contacted me. It all happened in the space of four weeks. I went from hoping to be on the England tour, which actually got announced (May 10), to now I’m over here playing with the Steelers, it's pretty crazy.”

• The task Scotland-Williamson faces is gigantic. Not only is he trying to become a professional in a sport he never had played before and only watched a few times on television, but he’s trying to break into that sport at the highest level in the world.

• The differences between rugby and NFL football are many, but two of the most significant ones would appear to be the structure of the respective sports, and the pace at which each is played.

• In terms of structure: where rugby is free-flowing, football is scripted, with each man having a specific job on each snap of the ball. Which means Scotland-Williamson is learning a playbook for the first time in his life, and to succeed in the NFL a player must be up on the details.

• And because football has regular breaks in the action between plays, the sport requires short, explosive bursts from the players – more power and speed – where the free-flowing nature of rugby makes endurance a more significant element of that sport.

• A couple of the things Scotland-Williamson has going for him in his attempt at a very difficult transformation are his age – he won’t turn 25 until early July – and the fact the NFL provides a roster exemption for those who are a part of the International Player Pathway during the offseason when rosters are limited to 90 players, and then there’s a provision for these players to be kept as an 11th man on what’s typically a 10-man practice squad once rosters must be cut to 53.

• But even though Scotland-Williamson says he’s totally committed to a career in professional football and has been diligent in doing the work necessary to make that happen, expecting him to be in the mix for a spot on the 53-man roster this summer – to be in the mix to do what McGee was going to do – looks to be premature at this stage.

• Remember, even Villanueva took advantage of a year on the practice squad before making a run at a roster spot, and he played football in high school and at West Point.

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