Kevin Colbert’s “regret” last offseason was not fortifying an offensive line that resulted in the Pittsburgh Steelers starting rookies at left tackle and center.
“An affordable veteran that might have eased the growth time for that group,” Colbert said in February, “but we knew it was going to be a tough year.”
In his final foray into free agency before he steps aside as Steelers general manager, Colbert retained starting right tackle Chuks Okorafor on a three-year, $ 29.25 million contract that counts just $ 4.33 million against the salary cap this year.
“He’s youthful and experienced, and I think that’s what exciting,” coach Mike Tomlin said in March at the NFL annual meeting. “This is a guy that’s been a multiple year starter for us, yet he’s only 24 years old. I think it’s reasonable to expect him to continue to grow and get better. ”
Colbert’s other moves to address the offensive line in free agency revolved around the interior, which means that unless he uses a draft pick on a tackle, the Steelers could be lacking in numbers at the position again in 2022.
Okorafor is penciled in at right tackle for the third year in a row, and Dan Moore Jr. is scheduled to return at left tackle after starting 16 of 17 games there as a rookie. The release of Zach Banner leaves Joe Haeg and Chaz Green as the only proven veteran backups. Haeg started two games last year, filling in once at each tackle spot. Green appeared in two games last year but has 39 career games on his five-season resume. John Leglue, who finished last season as the starting left guard, is also an option at Tackle.
The Steelers have never selected a tackle in the first round since Colbert arrived in 2000. The position could be an option with the No. 20 overall pick when one considers the depth of the 2022 class.
“There’s good quality at that position in this year’s draft, for sure,” Colbert said. “As of recent years, the tackle position has had unusual depth, and this year is no different.”
Given the way NFL franchises value tackles, the top 3-4 prospects should be gone by the time the Steelers announce their first pick.
The top two prospects have guard experience as well as dominant play at tackle. Alabama’s Evan Neal, who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 337 pounds, started 13 games at right guard as a freshman, moved to right tackle as a sophomore and then transitioned to left tackle as a junior.
The other is NC State’s Ickey Ekwonu, who goes 6-4, 310. He made most of his college starts at left tackle, but he could be moved inside to guard in the pros. He and Neal are projected by most analysts to be selected in the top 10.
The next wave features Mississippi State’s Charles Cross and Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning. The 6-5, 307-pound Cross was a two-year starter at left tackle who left school after his redshirt sophomore season. Penning dominated as a left tackle at the FCS level and was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, which is that level’s version of the Heisman Trophy.
Cross and Penning are projected to go in the middle of the first round.
“Teams picking in the top 15, I think, have a chance to get themselves a really good offensive lineman,” said Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta.
The Steelers, of course, hold the 20th pick, so they could be shut out of that quartet of prospects.
Others with lower grades or potential second-round options are Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann and Tulsa’s Tyler Smith.
Another second-day possibility is Penn State’s Rasheed Walker, who is 6-6, 325 pounds but is viewed as a raw prospect according to some draft analysts.
“If you want to like him, you can find tape that you will really like,” said NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah. “If you want to be bummed out about him, you can find tape to be bummed out about him. And the crazy thing is it’s all in the same tape.
“But this guy has got it all in his body. He is a true wild card guy. If he gets with the right offensive line coach, he could end up being a really good starter or he could end up really struggling somewhere. ”
Top 5 tackles
1. Evan Neal, Alabama, Jr., 6-7, 337
His play in 2021 led to a first-team all-conference selection in the SEC, and he was a second-team All-American. Has good bloodlines as evidenced by two uncles who played in the NFL: running back Cleveland Gary and defensive lineman Jimmie Jones.
2. Ickey Ekwonu, NC State, Jr., 6-4, 310
Gained his nickname because a youth coach thought he resembled former Bengals RB Ickey Woods. He was named first-team all-conference in the ACC and became a first-team All-American as well as an Outland Trophy finalist.
Charles Cross, Mississippi State, R-So., 6-5, 307
Cross left school after playing two seasons. He was an all-freshman pick in the ACC in covid-shortened 2020, and he was an all-conference pick in 2021 when he started 12 games at left tackle.
4. Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa R-Sr., 6-7, 325
A three-year starter at left tackle, Penning dominated the FCS level. He was charged with one sack allowed in his final season at Northern Iowa.
5. Bernhard Raimann, Central Michigan, 6-6, 303
Raimann grew up in Austria before coming to Michigan as part of a high school exchange program. A converted tight end, Raimann moved to the offensive line in 2020 and started his final 18 games at left tackle.
Best fit for Steelers, first day
Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa
He would be an intriguing choice if he was still on the board at No. 20. If he’s gone, it would be a reach for the Steelers to take another lineman with that pick since Neal and Ekwonu will be long gone and probably Cross, too.
Best fit for Steelers, second day
Daniel Faalele, Minnesota
After releasing Zach Banner, the Steelers could replace him with a prospect of equal – or greater – size. Faalele is a 6-foot-8, 384-pounder who grew up in Australia and has just four years of competitive football experience.
Best fit for Steelers, third day
Andrew Stueber, Michigan
Another big man who stands 6-7 and tips the scales at 325 pounds. He started 14 games at right tackle last year and was part of a group given the Joe Moore Award, which honors the top offensive line in the country.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .