PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger is back, but at least one defenseman from the last six seasons probably won’t be.
The Pittsburgh Steelers released 32-year-old tackle Alejandro Villanueva at the opening of the league year Wednesday, and the Steelers did not give him a new contract to keep him off the open market. His play… along with the rest of the offensive line… dropped off last season. This, combined with a tight salary, paves the way for a youth movement within the unit, many of whom are veterans.
Rebuilding this unit after the likely departure of Villanueva and the retirement of Morkiche Pouncey is a priority – especially after a season in which the running game fell apart and Roethlisberger was forced to get rid of the ball quickly before the pocket collapsed.
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Al [Villanueva] is a free agent, Matt Feiler is a free agent, Maurkice is retired, Zach Banner is no longer in the ALCS, so it’s an uncertain group we’re looking at, general manager Kevin Colbert said last month. Again, I don’t know what the Free Agency rate will be for Matt and Al. We know Morkis isn’t coming back with us. As it develops, it will continue to do so.
With a salary cut to $182.5 million, the Steelers will be one of many teams looking to bolster their offensive line with cheap, but NFL-appropriate tackles. For Colbert, it’s time to be a team in need of a tackle.
The lineup itself is stronger at tackle than on the inside, Colbert said. The center and guard are traditionally not a very strong group. In every project, this year is exceptionally deep. I think we can add players through the lineup. Hopefully we can do some trading in Free Agency. And we will always look at our players first.
ESPN NFL analyst Matt Miller agrees.
In my top 50, I have seven tackles, Miller said. So it’s very deep. … There are tackles who turn 33-45 and could probably be starters in the NFL. Some of the game may need to be cleaned up a bit.
Oklahoma State offensive tackle Teven Jenkins could be an option for the Steelers in the draft. Gregory Fisher/Sportswire Icon
In each of the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, the Steelers have a late round pick. At No. 24, the best offensive tackles in this class – Penae Sewell of Oregon, Alijah Vera-Tucker of USC and Rashawn Slater of Northwestern – will likely be off the market.
At the highest level, however, there are still plenty of tackles that are ready for the NFL.
Christian Darrisow (Virginia Tech) and Bitches Jenkins (Oklahoma State) are in the second group.
Oklahoma State’s Bitches Jenkins is a very good player, Miller said. I talked to him last week. Looks like this is the first day of a real fight.
Chukuuma Okorafor, who started nearly every game at right tackle last season, is expected to return to the Steelers for the final year of his contract. But if one of the teams renames the banner, there could be a positional battle there, or one of them could be moved to left tackle and the other could be competing with a newly drafted player for the starting spot at right tackle.
The Steelers could also take Dillon Radunz from North Dakota State. He missed the fall season because the FCS moved football to the spring, but was named a first-team All-American in 2019 as a junior. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. Radunz entered the draft early thanks to a strong performance in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
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Dillon has a lot of potential, Kiper said. He’s a left tackle on a plug-and-play basis. He was a high school shot putter and all-conference basketball player. It has length. I think he’s worth considering now.
Cincinnati’s James Hudson is another second-round option. Podradar, who has only been a starter for one year, could well be the starting left tackle.
He’s a phenomenal player, Miller said. A very, very good athlete. This is someone who drops out of the picture between the beginning and middle of the second round.
Texas’ Samuel Cosmey, a versatile player who allowed just one touchdown to the quarterback last season, can also be used as a boundary tackle in the first or second round of the offense.
He’s mean, he’s tough in the run game, Miller said. He just needs to be a little more patient in the passing game.
Says DL/LB Joseph Ossai of Texas: I wish the contest had been held this year, because then people could have seen how eccentric and explosive [Cosmi] is.
If the Steelers missed any of these prospects in the early rounds or want to move on, there are also options like Clemson’s Jackson Carman. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Matt Kanade attended Clemson’s pro day on Thursday, but Carman had nothing for him to do.
Carman spent the final two years of his college career as a left tackle for Trevor Lawrence. After Clemson’s Pro Day, he said NFL teams classify him as a left tackle, but have also talked to him about his potential as a defender. With that versatility, Carman can be a good addition in depth.
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