There have been a lot of questions about the future of the Steelers offensive line. After the 2017 season Pittsburgh sent three offensive lineman to the Pro Bowl. Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Alejandro Villanueva are all still in Pittsburgh, but the team’s salary cap issues are looming in the near future and free agency is not far off for these three starters. Villanueva is a free agent after this season and DeCastro and Pouncey will be free agents following the 2021 season. Starting right guard Matt Feiler is also set to be a free agent after the 2020 season as he is currently playing on a one-year deal.
With these contracts nearing an end and the retirement of offensive guard Ramon Foster in the off-season there was plenty of talk about how the Steelers would operate in free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft. Many draft experts listed offensive line as a major need for the Steelers and some had the team addressing the line early and multiple times with their six picks in mock drafts leading up to April.
Prior to the draft the Steelers signed Stefen Wisniewski to a two-year deal. Wisniewski won a Super Bowl a year ago with the Kansas City Chiefs and was brought in to compete for the vacant guard position. Currently, Wisniewski is on Injured Reserve with a pectoral injury. He will be eligible to return, however, after three weeks due to the adjusted rules for this season. The Steelers then waited until the fourth round of the NFL draft to target an offensive lineman; they used the second of their two fourth round selections on Louisiana-Lafayette guard Kevin Dotson.
Following the draft there was a lot of talk about the Steelers depth along the offensive line and whether or not they had done enough to address the line. The real concern being for the future. Was the team ready to continue to replace players along the offensive line and, more importantly, would those players be ready to step in and play to the level that was needed to win football games.
The Young Tackles
The Steelers, however, seem to have been well aware of what they had waiting in the wings. So far, through the first three games of the 2020 season, it appears that the Steelers may be more prepared to re-tool their offensive line than anyone may have thought heading into the off-season.
Last year the Steelers used offensive tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor in a lot of sub packages on offense. In fact, Banner had to report eligible in most of those packages and became a fan favorite during the year when he would enter the game and be announced by the referee as reporting as an eligible receiver. What we may not have known at the time was just how good Banner and Okorafor may be as starting offensive tackles in the NFL.
As 2020 training camp wore on Banner and Okorafor were locked in a heated battle for the starting right tackle job., a job was vacated when Matt Feiler was moved back to guard to replace the retired Ramon Foster. When it came time to announce a starter Mike Tomlin and his offensive staff were so torn between the two players that they listed them as co-starters. Banner ended up getting the nod and starter against the New York Giants in week 1. Unfortunately, Banner was lost for the 2020 season late in that week 1 win over the Giants when he was rolled up on and tore his ACL.
Luckily the Steelers had Okorafor waiting for his chance. After stepping in for Banner, Okorafor has been solid on the right side of the line.
With Alejandro Villanueva set to become a free agent after this season another question comes into view. Can Banner or Okorafor play on the left side of the line?
Given the salary cap position the team is facing next offseason it seems highly unlikely that Villanueva will be back. Right now it seems likely the Steelers would move one of the two to the left side while letting the other take the starting right tackle job. The only questions is who will play which side.
Kevin Dotson and Derwin Gray
Matt Feiler is another possible salary cap casualty for the Steelers after this season. Given his starting experience, and his ability to play guard or tackle, Feiler may be a hot commodity in free agency. That may also price him out of Pittsburgh. his departure would open up another spot that would need to be filled on the line. The two guards in waiting are Kevin Dotson and Derwin Gray.
Gray was a seventh round pick in 2019 out of Maryland. He is currently on the Steelers active roster having been moved up when Stefen Wisniewski was placed on IR with a pectoral injury. Gray has also spent time on the practice squad, but the fact that he is still around means the Steelers see something in him.
The most likely player to take the starting right guard spot in 2021 is Wisniewski who will be playing on the second year of his two-year contract, which would mean the Steelers would still be facing a need for a guard in 2022 if they could not or did not resign him.
That leaves us to our final option, Kevin Dotston. The Steelers drafted Dotson in the fourth round of the NFL Draft, but said they thought he should have gone higher. Dotson played at a smaller school and did not attend the Senior Bowl. This left him with less tape than many other players and caused him to fall in the draft. The Steelers, however, believe they have something special in Dotson.
Due to injuries Dotson was called in to start against the Denver Broncos in week 2. Not only did Dotson play well; he was given the game ball by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Dotson and Okorafor locked down a quality Broncos pass rush and helped to seal the game away by opening running lanes in the second half.
The Future Line
With the quality play of Banner, Okorafor and Dotson through this young season there is a lot of optimism for the future of the Steelers offensive line. All three of these players could have long careers in Pittsburgh and don’t be surprised if all three are starters come next season.