The Steelers have announced their intentions to move 2019 starting right tackle Matt Feiler to left guard after the retirement of Ramon Foster.
With that occurring, it sets Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on a collision course for a training camp battle at right tackle. Okorafor did get the nod against the Los Angeles Rams last season. However, Banner was the team’s sixth offensive lineman and came in on numerous plays. That spawned the “No. 72 is eligible” movement in Pittsburgh.
Behind all of this, however, which of the young tackles is the guy who should take the field against the New York Giants in Week 1?
The Tale of the Tape
In terms of actual on the field reps, Banner was good last season. That is not an exaggeration. Banner immediately sticks out as a guy that could potentially start. He got limited pass protection reps, and during those 24 limited reps did not allow a single pressure, sack, hurry, or quarterback hit. However, in run blocking, Banner showcased his ‘Hulk strength’ by blowing guys off their spot and out of the gap consistently.
When the label of a ‘people mover’ is given to an offensive lineman, this is what they mean. Banner may just be the strongest guy on the offensive line because he gets this type of unusual movement at the NFL level. For a big 6-foot-8 guy, Banner plays extremely low here. He showcases good knee bend and comes through with a nice flatback to keep his pads low. More importantly, he uses that knee bend to engage his lower body and shoot that power through his hands as he hits the edge defender in the middle of his pads. The best thing about this rep, however, is that he simply does not quit. Banner stays engaged until the whistle is blown and ends up moving the defender a whole ten yards downfield.
That functional strength will always be Banner’s best trait. It is natural for a guy of his size to be this strong, but guys his size often do not play with the consistent pad level and grip strength that Banner plays with. The one thing to highlight in this play is Banner’s feet as well. They are light and do not stop moving. Banner is not a heavy-footed guy for his size, which bodes well for his pass sets when quick feet will be all that more important. Banner as a pure finisher and run blocking technician, however, is a fun thing to watch on film.
Keeping those feet running and staying engaged is so important in the open field for an offensive lineman. Banner has excellent movement skills, superb feet, and always has the grip strength needed as well. When a lineman can stay engaged like this on a linebacker downfield, that is how they spring big plays in the running game and screen game. That is why seeing reps like these from a guy like is Banner is so exciting. NFL starting tackles do things like this.
For Okorafor, he has far more limited reps than Banner. However, during his start against the Rams, he flashed some good tape out there. For one, his vision and ability to multitask along the offensive line is excellent, as he showcases here. Okorafor attacks and collapses the hip of the rusher heading for DeCastro, but is still quick-witted enough to bounce back, stun the edge rusher, and keep Rudolph protected. That is all eye discipline at that point. It shows Okorafor can process looks and where the pressure may be coming from on any given play.
Unlike Banner, who wins through pure functional strength, Okorafor wins moreso through his punch power. In pass protection especially, Okorafor has well-timed, strong punches that stun pass rushers that can try to win around the bend. Against speed rushers especially, it is how Okorafor wins. Dante Fowler can speak to that, as he is stunned by a robust two-handed jab from Okorafor on this play.
Where Okorafor sets himself apart from Banner is that he has superb footwork. Banner has good footwork, but they are not nearly as quick as Okorafor’s feet. Here, he can get into his smooth kick-slide and virtually glide to his spot. That means he is not often rushing to beat guys, even with a significant first step to his spot. As such, he can stay disciplined and within strike pocket. There is no need for him to be overaggressive and lunge. Instead, he simply maintains good knee bend and strikes to stun the pass rusher with his heavy hands.
So, Who Wins the Job?
This one is a bit tough to answer. The higher pedigree within the organization by far goes to Okorafor. He was groomed to be the successor at one of the tackle spots ever since he was picked in the 3rd round out of Western Michigan. However, Banner put out quality tape in 2019, and it is hard to see him going on the bench.
Okorafor certainty struggled in the preseason, but he was not that bad against the Rams. He had some help with chips and such, but when asked to face a man head-to-head simply, most of the time, Okorafor did his job. Still, though, Banner’s quality tape and performance have to stand for something. He has reworked his body once this offseason and looks ready to go once again.
At this time, the prediction is Banner just because of the amount of quality tape he put out. In reality, this is up in the air, and it would not be a surprise at all to see Okorafor capture that spot, but just based off the sheer quality of tape, Banner gets the nod.
NFL Insider John Clayton: Steelers Out of Running for J.J. Watt
One of the league’s most prominent insiders believes the Steelers are out of the running for free agent defensive end J.J. Watt.
Joining The PM Team on 93.7 The Fan on Wednesday, NFL insider John Clayton said Watt will not be joining his brothers T.J. and Derek in Pittsburgh.
Clayton sees the Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills as the favorites to land Watt’s services.
For a potential dark horse, Clayton says the Las Vegas Raiders as an outside-the-box candidate to sign the veteran pass rusher.
.@JohnClaytonNFL says JJ Watt won't be coming to Pittsburgh. Tennessee, Green Bay, and Buffalo are the 3 teams. Raiders as a dark horse.— Andrew Fillipponi (@ThePoniExpress) February 24, 2021
Watt leaves Houston as one of the greatest players in franchise history. He was selected to five Pro Bowls, named First-Team All-Pro on five occasions and earned three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.
A future Hall of Famer, Watt is the Texans’ all-time leader in sacks (101), tackles-for-loss (172) and forced fumbles (25).
Watt recorded 52 total tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown in 2020.
Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster Says He Wants to Retire in Pittsburgh
Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster reiterated that he wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh, even though that possibility seems remote.
Smith-Schuster, speaking with TMZ Sports in Los Angeles on Wednesday, that he’s not looking for a reason to return to the West Coast, and wants to remain with the Steelers.
“At the end of the day, I want to have my legacy in Pittsburgh and retire there,” he said. “I don’t want to leave. … I’m Pittsburgh for life.”
Smith-Schuster also said that he still feels that Ben Roethlisberger has enough in the tank to the take the team to a championship and that he feels he has a good relationship with the Steelers’ quarterback.
Roethlisberger’s situation remains up in the air as he and the team attempt to come to terms on a re-negotiated or extended contract to ameliorate some of his $41 million cap hit for the 2021 season.
Roethlisberger said he would like Smith-Schuster to return, but the 24-year-old free agent will likely be able to command a salary in the $15 million per year range, which seems to be out of the price range of the Steelers, who remain well over the salary cap with three weeks to go before the start of the new league year.
How Can Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger Reduce His Salary Cap Hit?
It seems that both Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers would like to have Roethlisberger return to be the team’s quarterback for the 2021 season, after public statements from Roethlisberger’s agent Ryan Tollner and Steelers president Art Rooney II in the last 24 hours.
But both Tollner and Rooney emphasized the need for a parties to come to an agreement regarding Roethlisberger’s contract for the 2021 season.
The star quarterback is set to count for $41 million against the 2021 salary cap, a figure that the Steelers have said must be reduced in order for Roethlisberger to return. Roethlisberger has said that his salary for 2021 is not an issue to him.
But there are several different ways Roethlisberger’s 2021 salary can be reduced, and the remaining negotiations between the team and Roethlisberger’s representation will be based around that structure.
There are three basic ways that the team can reduce Roethlisberger’s salary cap for 2021: a traditional extension, an extension with voidable years and Roethlisberger taking a pay cut.
Here’s what Roethlisberger’s contact looks like right now:
In a traditional extension, Roethlisberger would convert most of his $19 million roster bonus and salary scheduled for 2021 into a signing bonus, with the impact divided over the number of years of the contract. These negotiations would also include future salary figures for Roethlisberger if he were to play in the 2022 season or beyond.
Without knowing how those negotiations would go, it’s hard to project what such a contract would look like in the future, but we can know what it would do to the 2021 salary cap:
The sides could also agree on a voidable extension that would add years to Roethlisberger’s contract in order to spread out the salary cap hit of the new singing bonus, but with both sides agreeing that he would not play beyond the 2021 season under the terms of that contract. The same amount of money could be turned into singing bonus, but it could be spread over more seasons without the team needing to worry about Roethlisberger attempting to stay and play well into his 40s.
Such an extension would look something like this on paper for the 2021 season:
But after the contract gets voided in 2022, the result would be something like this:
The final method would simply be negotiating a reduced contract for Roethlisberger in 2021. This is the only way for the team to get Roethlisberger’s cap hit for 2021 below about $27 million, and depending on how much he is willing to give up, could get as low as $23,325,000 in this example:
The earlier options would make Roethlisberger whole in 2021, with his entire due salary of $19 million get paid out this year and the cap impacts of that payment being spread out over several seasons.
This final option helps the team the most in 2021, but also involves Roethlisberger forgoing some of his negotiated salary, something the other options do not. It’s not clear if Roethlisberger of his representation will be willing to do that.