Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 16.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE (9)
Kevin Dotson, B.J. Finney, Nathan Gilliam, Kendrick Green, Joe Haig, J.C. Hassenauer, John Leglue, Malcolm Pridgeon, Trai Turner
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2 unrestricted – B.J. Finney, Trai Turner)
A LAST LOOK AT 2021
During the offseason, the Steelers lost a couple of All-Pro players/people when Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro retired in ways that reflected their respective personalities. The Steelers lost their other starter along the interior of the offensive line to free agency.
Pouncey, the extrovert of the unit, did it in a more direct and official way with an announcement on social media, while DeCastro, never one to draw attention to himself, opted against more ankle surgery immediately after the 2020 season and when the joint didn't respond in time for minicamp in June the team released him and he disappeared from the NFL. And as a result of a bad cap situation that then was exacerbated by a drop in every team's cap number as a result of COVID's impact on the 2020 season, the Steelers were unable to approach the $7 million-a-season offer Feiler received from the Los Angeles Chargers to complete the clean sweep-out of their starting interior offensive line.
The Steelers responded by signing veteran free agent Trai Turner to play right guard, by using a third-round pick on Kendrick Green to play center, and by counting on second-year player Kevin Dotson to be the full-time left guard, but the interior ended up not being as settled as that plan was simple.
Turner started all 17 regular season games at right guard; Green started the first 15 games at center before injuring a calf and giving way to J.C. Hassenauer from there; and Dotson started the first nine games at left guard. From there, things descended into an NFL version of mix-and-match. For the final eight games of the regular season, the left guard position was divvied up among B.J. Finney (two starts), John Leglue (five starts), and Hassenauer (one start).
Clearly not an optimum situation, especially when it's pointed out that of the six players who started games along the interior of the offensive line over the course of the 2021 season, Finney had the most experience with the Steelers (four years' worth), but he had spent the previous season splitting time between the Bengals and Seahawks.
As 2021 progressed, one of the oft-repeated narratives became the one about Green being out of position at center, and while it certainly gained traction among fans and the media, neither Coach Mike Tomlin nor General Manager Kevin Colbert seemed to be among those who shared that opinion.
"I do believe J.C. (Hassenauer) gave us the best opportunity to win at the latter portions of the season and that's why we played him (at center)," said Tomlin a couple of days following the Wild Card Round loss in Kansas City, "and I am optimistic that (Green) has position flexibility. That's one of the reasons why he was attractive to us (in the draft). We saw 2020 Illinois tape where he started and played games at center, and he started and played games at guard, so that's a component of his resume. But I'm not ready to lay the center work to bed either. We made decisions at the end of the year that gave us the best chance to win based on those circumstances, there are a myriad of variables in those circumstances, and it might not reflect our plans or our intentions as we push forward into 2022."
Said Colbert on Feb. 21, "When we drafted Kendrick, we knew that he had spent the majority of his college career at guard. We saw him play enough center that we thought it could be his position of the future. Kendrick did a lot of good things for us, and when he hurt his calf, he wasn't benched because of inefficient play. He was benched because he was hurt, and he actually dressed (for those games) and was available in an emergency role even though he wasn't 100 percent. J.C. (Hassenauer) went in and did a nice job. We came out of it saying, 'Let's let Kendrick get healthy and get right.' We know that Kendrick can play guard. We know that he can play center. Is it our best option? See where we go in these next few months, because we don't know the options that are going to be available to us."
And to add to the general revolving door along the interior, Turner (29 years old in June) can become an unrestricted free agent on March 6.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Some of the best centers in franchise history started out playing guard. Hall of Famer Mike Webster played both left guard and right guard for the Steelers during his first two NFL seasons before taking over the center spot for good in 1976; Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson played eight games at right guard, with five starts, as a rookie in 1988 before taking over at center in 1989 and not missing a start there for the next 10 years; and Jeff Hartings played four seasons during which he made 71 starts at guard for the Lions before signing with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent in 2001 to play center.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2022
There seems to be little doubt the Steelers will be expending resources during the offseason in an effort to strengthen the offensive line, both along the interior and at tackle, and it remains to be seen how the process unfolds as to whether they choose to go the free agent route or the draft/develop route.
In addition to deciding on the best position for Green, the Steelers also can be expected to make some kind of determination on Dotson, who had a nice rookie season in 2020 but then didn't make the second-year jump in performance that Tomlin emphasizes/demands from all of the team's rookies.
For his part, Pouncey has shared photos working out with Green already this offseason, and maybe it's fortunate the Steelers have some salary cap space to work with during this upcoming free agency period, because Colbert said, "Looking at the draft as it stands today, I always talk about strengths and weaknesses. The wide receiver group is strong, the tackles are strong, cornerbacks are strong, the outside linebacker types are strong. Where we think it's a little thinner is guard and center, and the defensive tackles."