Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 17.
OFFENSIVE LINE (15)
Zach Banner, Aviante Collins, Anthony Coyle, David DeCastro, Kevin Dotson, Matt Feiler, J.C. Hassenauer, Jerald Hawkins, Danny Isidora, Jarron Jones, John Leglue, Chuks Okorafor, Calvin Taylor, Brandon Walton, Alejandro Villanueva,
(Free Agent Scorecard: 5 unrestricted – Zach Banner, Matt Feiler, Jerald Hawkins, Danny Isidora, Alejandro Villanueva)
Take a look at the best photos of the Steelers offensive line during the 2020 season
A LAST LOOK AT 2020
Not good enough. Nothing about the performance of the Steelers offensive line in 2020 was good enough.
Defenders of the unit might choose to point to Ben Roethlisberger being sacked only 13 times in 15 games as a good sign, but even that accomplishment was mitigated by the fact the ball was coming out of his hand consistently in the 2-second range and most of the offense was run out of the shotgun, which further made things more difficult for the opposing pass rush. For around 75 percent of the regular season, the Steelers were incapable of running the ball effectively, and it seemed as though they were incapable of converting third-and-short, fourth-and-short, and goal-to-go situations with their running game throughout the whole season.
Fans screamed for different play-calls, for fullback Derek Watt to be leading the running back through the line of scrimmage, for more tight ends on the field, for Roethlisberger to operate from under center, for quarterback sneaks, but none of those suggestions would have impacted the root cause of the problem – the offensive line too often was being handled physically at the line of scrimmage by the opponent.
It's clear the Steelers are not taking the glass-half-full approach to their offensive line's performance last season, because shortly after the end of the season they moved on from offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett by not renewing his contract. There had been speculation that some of the techniques Sarrett was teaching may have been contributing to the inability to move people off the line of scrimmage. Anyway, the decision was made to move on from Sarrett, and with five offensive linemen capable of becoming unrestricted free agents on March 17, with Maurkice Pouncey already having announced his retirement, and with David DeCastro having turned 31 in January, this unit could look decidedly different once on-field preparations for the 2021 season begin this summer.
The Steelers did manage to add an up-and-coming physical presence to their offensive line when they selected guard Kevin Dotson on the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Already as a rookie, Dotson showed he has the on-field demeanor the team will be looking to establish moving forward. Dotson almost certainly will be a starter next season.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey from the 2020 season
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
The 14 sacks allowed in 2020 was the only time in franchise history the offense allowed fewer than 20 sacks in a 16-game regular season. The 1997 and the 1986 Steelers teams each allowed 20 sacks.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers OL Kevin Dotson from the 2020 season
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2021
That there are going to be changes to this unit is a given, and so instead of trying to list those, what might be easier is to try to identify what won't change. Barring injury, DeCastro will be the starting right guard, and the same "barring injury" qualifier can be applied to Dotson and the starting left guard job.
With Dotson penciled into the starting lineup, where might that leave Matt Feiler? First of all, Feiler can become an unrestricted free agent, and based on the road he had to travel to get to the cusp of the open market his best move would be to see what kind of offers might be out there for him. Feiler will be 29 in July, and he only got into the NFL via a tryout with Houston after going undrafted out of Bloomsburg. This most likely represents his one and only chance at free agency, and his agent certainly will be advising him to take advantage of the process. If Feiler decided to re-sign with the Steelers, his best position likely would be tackle based on what the team already has seen from Dotson at guard.
Also at tackle are Zach Banner and Chuks Okorafor, who spent last summer competing for the starting job at right tackle, which had been Feiler's until he was moved to left guard following the retirement of Ramon Foster. Banner ended up winning that competition, but he wasn't able to get through the regular season opener before he tore an ACL and was lost for the rest of the season.
Okorafor will be entering the final year of his rookie contract in 2021, and while Banner can become an unrestricted free agent in March his public comments so far have indicated an interest in returning to the Steelers. While Banner has expressed interest in staying with the Steelers, the assumption is left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is going to get an offer from another team that will be too lucrative for him to refuse. This will be Villanueva's last best chance to cash out, and the assumption is that he has played his final games with the Steelers.
If the Steelers might be able to find two starting tackles from players who were on their roster in 2020 – provided they can re-sign Banner and/or Feiler – and if it seems as though they have two starting caliber guards in Dotson and DeCastro, they don't have a ready-made replacement for Pouncey at center.
General Manager Kevin Colbert was hired by the Steelers in 2000, and only in one of the 21 drafts since then have the Steelers spent more than one premium pick on offensive linemen. That was in 2012 when DeCastro was picked on the first round and Mike Adams was picked on the second round. It would be no surprise, nor could it be considered a squandering of draft capital, if the Steelers broke that streak in the 2021 NFL Draft.