O-line talent level on the rise

The Steelers have built an offensive line with premium draft picks and big-name free agent signings, and they won Super Bowl XL with a front five that included a pair of their No. 1 picks in Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons, a No. 2 pick in Marvel Smith, and big-ticket free agent Jeff Hartings who had entered the league as a No. 1 pick of the Detroit Lions.

They also have gone in the opposite direction, such as when they won Super Bowl XLIII by cobbling together a group that included an undrafted free agent in Darnell Stapleton, a free agent castoff in Justin Hartwig, and a sixth-round pick in Chris Kemoeatu.

For his part, Sean Kugler has been both a cobbler and a juggler. He has worked with castoffs and journeymen and late-round draft picks. He has gone through seasons where he didn't know who would be lining up where from game-to-game, from series-to-series, even at times from play-to-play.

Sean Kugler has been a cobbler and a juggler, but only because he had to be. This summer, for the first time as an NFL assistant coach, he gets to try something different.

Over the past three offseasons, the Steelers have returned to the days of utilizing premium draft picks to stock their offensive line, and Kugler's group this summer includes a couple of No. 1 picks and a couple of No. 2 picks. Throw in the move of Willie Colon to guard, a position many in the personnel department have believed all along is best suited to his skills, and the Steelers have an assemblage of offensive line talent that harkens back to the days of the mid-2000s.

None of it will mean anything, though, unless what needs to get done at training camp in fact gets done.

"What we wanted to do was have the positions set going into training camp. By having the positions set, what I mean is having the guys at right tackle if they're a right tackle and at left tackle if they're a left tackle, and those particular things," said Kugler. "There are still a couple of things to be answered at training camp, in particular after we put the pads on.

"Hopefully, the sooner the better we'll have a starting group set at their positions. Guys will continue to train at different positions, particularly if they're non-starters to give the group flexibility, but I'm pretty comfortable with where we're going to start off with the guys at certain positions, and I think they are, too."

Through an offseason spent without No. 1 pick David DeCastro and No. 2 pick Mike Adams – except for a three-day minicamp – the Steelers worked Marcus Gilbert at both left and right tackle, but Colon was at left guard exclusively. With Maurkice Pouncey entrenched at center and Marcus Gilbert set to start at either right tackle or left tackle, things are set up for the two rookies to use their time on campus to show they belong among the first five offensive linemen.

"Gilbert will start off at training camp working at left tackle and right tackle, just as he was doing at the end of OTAs," said Kugler. "Mike (Adams) will do the same, and there probably will be a determination made pretty quick, as to who's going to be at left and who's going to be at right. You do have to have some padded practices to see how it goes, but certainly before the first (preseason) game we want to have that set. Marcus is comfortable going from left to right. He's done both, and Mike needs to come in and show that same versatility. But I think both of those guys will be able to handle left tackle or right tackle, and that's a good thing."

In the case of former tackles Marvel Smith and Max Starks, the Steelers started them off on the right side, where they both started as rookies, before moving them over to the left side, where they ended up playing most of the rest of their careers. This time, Adams will be given a chance to start at left tackle as a rookie. About a week before camp opened, the team signed Starks to a one-year deal, but early indications were that he was added more as insurance than as a plug-in starter.

"I would say left tackle is a little more difficult, based on the quality of pass-rushers you have to face, but that's if you're a right-handed team," said Kugler. "There are quality players all across the board in the NFL, so I wouldn't say one is more difficult from a learning standpoint."

Tackle isn't going to be the only spot to watch, because the Steelers also are looking to re-design the interior of the offensive line as well. Pouncey is a proven Pro Bowl player, and DeCastro's college career has him entering the NFL with Alan Faneca-like expectations. Putting Colon at left guard should allow him to blossom as an individual, while also strengthening an area plagued by mental mistakes throughout the time it was manned by Kemoeatu.

"Willie's got incredible strength. He's an explosive guy," said Kugler. "He has natural pulling skills, which you really can't exploit at tackle. At guard, and as much as we pull our guards, he could really flourish there," said Kugler. "The biggest obstacle for Willie was accepting the fact he wanted to be a guard. Right from the beginning he jumped in with both feet and was excited about being a guard. I believe the more he plays it, the more he enjoys it, and that's just going to make us all better. He can be just an outstanding guard."

As the process is ongoing, this is what Kugler will be looking to develop among the five players who will open the season in front of Ben Roethlisberger.

"You gotta have chemistry. Probably the most difficult part of the past two years was you're moving guys around and you're mixing guys in. Again, it was out of necessity, but it was hard to develop chemistry. Barring injury, we'd love to keep the same five guys out there, but obviously you can't control that.

"As far as the attributes of the specific players: physical toughness, because that's the foundation of Steelers offensive line play; smart guys, guys who play error-free; guys who are good communicators; and guys who are very prideful in the fact that we have to be efficient in the running game and we have to protect Ben."

The Pittsburgh Steelers open training camp for their 80th NFL season on Wednesday, July 25 at Saint Vincent College. The first practice that is open to the public is on Friday, July 27. A complete camp schedule is avaiailable on Steelers.com

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