Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 13.
OFFENSIVE TACKLES (7)
Zach Banner, Matt Feiler, Marcus Gilbert, Jerald Hawkins, Chuks Okorafor, R.J. Prince, Al Villanueva
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1; 1 exclusive rights – Matt Feiler)
A LAST LOOK AT 2018
As far as the starters, Al Villanueva was voted to the Pro Bowl for the second straight season, and Marcus Gilbert was unable to stay healthy for all 16 games for the third straight season. As for the rest of the depth chart at the position, rookie Chuks Okorafor filled the Chris Hubbard role nicely by showing the ability to contribute both as an extra tight end and as a full-time tackle when injuries to Gilbert and Matt Feiler forced him into the starting lineup. And Feiler progressed from a guy consistently fighting for a spot on the roster, or in the worst case scenario, a spot on the practice squad, into someone who could be counted upon to deliver quality play at tackle or guard in regular season football.
Even though the Steelers finished very near the bottom of the league in rushing yards per game and rushing average, that seemed to have more to do with what they chose to do offensively as opposed to ineffectiveness. The lone exception to that theory, and it was a costly one, was the game against the Raiders, who showed up that afternoon with a porous run defense and still held the Steelers to 40 yards on 19 attempts (2.1 average).
Running game aside, because they typically are blocking the opponents' most effective pass rushers, offensive tackles earn their reputations based on their ability to protect the quarterback, and that's especially so for a team with an offense built around a franchise quarterback.
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in attempts last season with 675, and he was sacked 24 times, for an average of one sack per 28.1 attempts. That represented the lowest sack-per-attempt total of Roethlisberger's career in any regular season in which he played all 16 games.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
The Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969, and only Chuck Noll had more than one offensive tackle voted to the Pro Bowl during his tenure. It was Larry Brown and then Tunch Ilkin under Noll; Marvel Smith was voted to the Pro Bowl during Bill Cowher's tenure; and it has been Al Villanueva under Mike Tomlin.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2019
The top of the depth chart has Villanueva signed through the 2020 NFL season, and Gilbert will be entering the final year of a contract due to pay him $4.9 million to go along with a reasonable cap number of $6.64 million. The use of a third-round pick on Okorafor last April was criticized in some circles, but based on what he showed as a rookie and his potential for improvement, that now looks like a shrewd move.
It should be an interesting offseason for a couple of young players on this unit, albeit for very different reasons.
Jerald Hawkins, a fourth-round pick in 2016, has shown some flashes, but he also has spent two of his first three NFL seasons on the injured reserve list. Hawkins once was seen as a potential starter at left tackle, but his injury history and the inactivity that resulted from it has him as a gigantic unknown as he heads into the final season of the contract he signed as a rookie.
Zach Banner, whose father is one-time All-Pro tackle Lincoln Kennedy who played 11 NFL seasons, was a late-preseason pickup because of injuries at the position and yet showed enough promise to be kept on the 53-man roster throughout 2018. Banner, 6-foot-8 and 360 pounds, entered the league as a fourth-round pick of the Colts, and it was his ballooning weight that sabotaged his time there and turned him into a journeyman. Banner seems to have his weight under control, and if he can keep it that way through the upcoming offseason, he has some qualities that are very intriguing for a player who had been cut by three different NFL teams before his 25th birthday and was on the street when NFL training camps opened in 2018.
R.J. Prince is another guy who's worth watching once the offseason program begins. An undrafted rookie last year from North Carolina, Prince (6-6, 311) was a candidate to be the team's unofficial rookie phenom last summer, and he may have had an outside shot at a spot on the 53-man roster if it hadn't been for the arrival of Banner and the potential Banner showed rather quickly. Prince opened camp as a tackle but soon showed the versatility to play guard as well, and that will be an important factor for him going into his second season as he tries to follow the same path to the field that Feiler most recently blazed.
Speaking of Feiler, his best position might be at guard, but his value has been increased significantly by his ability also to line up at tackle, and then turn in representative performances at either spot.
NEXT: Running backs