Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 13.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (11)
Zach Banner, David DeCastro, Christian DiLauro, Matt Feiler, B.J. Finney, Ramon Foster, Derwin Gray, J.C. Hassenauer, Chuks Okorafor, Maurkice Pouncey, Al Villanueva
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – B.J. Finney; 2 restricted – Zach Banner, Matt Feiler)
A LAST LOOK AT 2019
Anonymity is an offensive lineman's best friend, but unfortunately for the players manning this unit there was nothing anonymous about their 2019 season. When a team has as much trouble moving the ball and scoring as the Steelers did last season, no player or unit is blameless, but while fans could look at the quarterbacks and see Ben Roethlisberger was missing, and then look at the wide receivers and see Antonio Brown was missing and JuJu Smith-Schuster was injured, and then notice that running back James Conner missed six games and that production from the tight ends declined considerably, it became natural to cast a critical eye on the unit that was largely unchanged from the previous season when the offense scored 54 touchdowns and 428 points.
Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Al Villanueva had been voted to the previous season's Pro Bowl, but one year later the Steelers couldn't run the football or convert in the red zone or score more than 10 points in a game down the stretch of the regular season, or so it seemed. And since there had been injuries at quarterback, running back, tight end, and wide receiver, but nothing significant to any of the offensive linemen, well, a measure of the criticism coming from the outside was directed at that unit.
Coach Mike Tomlin wasn't among those who believed the offensive line was under-performing. In the days before the Steelers would play the New York Jets in the penultimate game of their regular season, Tomlin was asked, "Are you getting what you need from that group?"
Said Tomlin, "I have, and I am continually, but it doesn't mean their job is going to be an easy one. When dominos are falling around them it gets increasingly difficult for them to do their job. They're a group that's capable of winning the line of scrimmage and allowing us to run the ball, but if we're without significant perimeter people like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald, then the number of people they have to block in an effort to do that changes, for example. So I don't base their overall effectiveness on tangible things like numbers and results that we could easily talk about. I acknowledge that things they need to do routinely change, and the difficulty of it changes based on who's available or who's not available around them. I love the group. They're a steadying force. They've been an encourager to these young people at other positions – quarterback, running back, receiver, tight end. They've done a heckuva job of leading and being that consistent anchor for that group, but it doesn't mean their job has been easy."
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
The Steelers have had unusual stability along their offensive line, with the one exception of right tackle, where Matt Feiler took over for Marcus Gilbert in the midst of the 2018 regular season. But the other four spots have been manned by Al Villanueva, who started 64 of a possible 64 games during the 2016-19 regular seasons; Ramon Foster who started 60 of the 64 games during that span; Maurkice Pouncey, who started 59 of the possible 64 games with two of his absences because of a suspension for coming to the aid of Mason Rudolph as he was being assaulted by Myles Garrett; and David DeCastro, who started 61 of a possible 64 games.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2020
As explained in the above section, the Steelers have enjoyed remarkable stability on the offensive line, but that is expected to change this offseason. To what extent will be determined largely by the outcome of free agency.
It has been speculated that the Steelers will move on from Ramon Foster, who is 34 and is due to carry a cap charge of $5.8 million in 2020. Theoretically, if that happens, the left guard spot could be filled by B.J. Finney, but he can become an unrestricted free agent on March 18 and may look to hit the open market to see what teams might be willing to pay a 28-year-old who can play all three interior positions on the offensive line.
If both Foster and Finney depart, then it's possible the Steelers could look to move Matt Feiler from right tackle to left guard – as they did in what turned out to be a victory over the Los Angeles Rams to inject size to the interior to combat Aaron Donald – but Feiler is a restricted free agent. It's very unusual for a restricted free agent to get an offer from another team and then leave, but it's not impossible. Zach Banner is also a eligible to become a restricted free agent, which puts him in the same category as Feiler.
With Banner, Finney, and Chuks Okorafor, a third-round pick in 2018 whose second NFL season was impacted by shoulder surgery during the previous offseason, there is potential on the roster for the Steelers to be able to fill some holes with players who have a working knowledge of the offensive system and the way Coach Mike Tomlin likes to do business. That could be taken to mean the Steelers have the ability to ignore this area during the offseason and concentrate their player acquisition resources to other positions.
But the Steelers believe in prioritizing the offensive line, and so even if free agency doesn't gut their depth chart, it's likely the team will spend some of its draft capital here, if for no other reason than to inject some more youth into the mix. The Steelers have had some good fortune in developing undrafted rookies (Foster, Finney, and Feiler) and picking up other team's castoffs (Villanueva and Banner), but the reality of their situation is that four of their starting five from 2019 are thirtysomethings (Foster is 34, Al Villanueva is 31, Pouncey and DeCastro are 30), and the only player who was on the initial 53-man roster and stayed on it through the end of the season who's younger than 25 is Okorafor (22 in August).
Veteran experience is a good thing, but age isn't necessarily a good thing. The Steelers need to get younger on the offensive line, and the best way to achieve that would be gradually. That's why it's important for them to try to mitigate their losses in free agency and then address this unit in the draft because come the start of the 2020 season they would be best served to have more offensive linemen who deserve to be classified as up-and-comers.