Veteran Tackle a ‘Favorite’ Free Agent Fit for Steelers

Russell Okung

Grant Halverson/Getty Images Russell Okung of the Carolina Panthers during training camp on August 24, 2020.

When Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked about the team’s depth chart during his pre-draft news conference in late April, he indicated that Chuks Okorafor has been “penciled in” as the team’s starting left tackle. Days later the Steelers added Dan Moore Jr. (Texas A&M) in the fourth round of the draft, adding competition at the position.

But many NFL observers, including Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus, believe the Steelers are still on shaky ground at offensive tackle, especially for a team that purports to have Super Bowl aspirations.

“Pittsburgh’s decisions this offseason, ranging from restructuring Ben Roethlisberger’s contract to drafting immediate contributors such as Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth with [its] first two picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, indicate that they want to make one last run before looking toward the future,” offers Linsey in his new piece on his favorite NFL team fits for top remaining free agents.

“If that’s the case, it makes sense to bring on a reliable veteran to man the left tackle position on a one-year deal,” he writes.

Russell Okung is a Former Top 10 Pick

Linsey suggests 12-year veteran Russell Okung, who was selected No. 6 overall in 2010 by the Seattle Seahawks and has since started for the Denver Broncos (2016), Los Angeles Chargers (2017-19) and Carolina Panthers (2020).

In Linsey’s opinion, Okung would bring “stability” to the left side of a line that moved on from longtime starter Alejandro Villanueva after the 2020 season. He would also bring an 80.9 career PFF grade, as compared to the 57.4 grade that Okorafor posted in his first year starting at right tackle in 2020.

Yet the Steelers do seem intent on getting younger on the offensive line, and at tackle in particular. At the moment, the plan is to move Okorafor, 23, to the left side, with Zach Banner, 27, expected to start at right tackle, once he is all the way back from the torn ACL he suffered in the season opener last year.

The youth of Okorafor, Banner and Moore contrast sharply with Okung’s extensive experience, as the two-time Pro Bowler (2012, 2017), has started 131 games in the league and been a part of almost 9,000 snaps.

Expect the Steelers to hold off on adding more veteran offensive line help, at least until August, when the team uses training camp and the preseason to evaluate the progress along the line. You may recall that the Steelers signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard/tackle Joe Haeg to a two-year contract in free agency, a move that followed the re-acquisition of guard/center B.J. Finney, who spent last year with the Seattle Seahawks and Cincinnati Bengals.

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CB Steven Nelson to the New York Jets?

Meanwhile, it’s also worth noting that Linsey believes that former Steelers cornerback Steven Nelson would be a great fit for the CB-needy New York Jets as their “projected starting trio of Blessuan Austin, Bryce Hall and Javelin Guidry is now in the running for worst in the NFL.”

You may recall that Nelson had his contract terminated by the Steelers in March in an effort to save salary cap space, not because of subpar play.

“Over the past four seasons, [Nelson] has allowed a completion percentage of just 55.0% into his coverage, 10th at the position. He’s one of the better fits still available for Robert Saleh’s zone-heavy defense,” concludes Linsey.

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