UNITY TWP, Pa. — Jerald Hawkins’ first three years in the NFL haven’t exactly gone according to plan.
Hawkins, a fourth-round, project pick out of LSU in 2016, spent two of his first three seasons on the Steelers’ reserve/injured list. A torn labrum in his first preseason cost him his entire rookie year, and after showing progression under Mike Munchak’s tutelage in 2017, the 6-foot-6 tackle suffered a torn quad in 2018 OTAs that placed him on the IR. Again.
“It halted (the progression) for a good minute,” Hawkins said on Tuesday. “All the older guys, they seen it, too, before I got hurt. I was making that jump, that leap.”
Hawkins was even deemed a potential Chris Hubbard-like swing tackle whom the Steelers could plug in and play at a moment’s notice when injuries to starters arose. But now, the series of setbacks coupled with increased competition within a deep offensive line unit, Hawkins – entering the final year of his rookie deal – could be left off the team’s 53-man roster in a few weeks.
“Things happen, man,” he said. “God has his own timing.”
Hawkins weathered a rough start to training camp in his first football action in 19 months, where he was noticeably uncomfortable while struggling to protect the edge against the likes of T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and Ola Adeniyi in 1-on-1s. But again, a seamless return after nearly two years out of pads shouldn’t have been expected in his particular situation.
“These days are hard,” Hawkins said. “You’re going against guys, from Cam [Heyward] to Bud and Ola — the whole defense. Everybody’s great. They help me challenge myself every day because they know what I’m coming off of, and they calling me like, ‘OK Hawk, I’m working on your post, I’m working on your bull, I’m working on your anchor.’ I just love how those guys keep me focused and stable.”
The transition back into football shape has been physically demanding, Hawkins said, but the mental and emotional obstacles were roadblocks he’s been forced to overcome, as well. Hawkins comes from a military family with two older brothers in the Army. Both relayed a mantra for Hawkins to abide by as he continues to claw his way back.
‘Embrace the suck.’
“That’s something I’ve learned,” Hawkins told me. “They’ve reminded me to always embrace the suck. You’re going to have some bad times and you just have to keep pushing. It’s only temporary. Only you can make yourself better. When you have obstacles, you’ve got to keep pushing.”
Hawkins has made small steps in recent days, enough to catch the eye of Craig Wolfley late last week. But it might not be enough. This season, depth is perhaps the the greatest strength of the Steelers’ offensive line. Matt Feiler appears to have the starting right tackle position locked up, with 2018 third-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor serving as the primary backup at both tackle spots during camp. When veteran Ramon Foster has been rested during camp, the Steelers moved Feiler inside to left guard and subbed in Okorafor at first-team right tackle – giving the impression that Hawkins is currently on the outside looking in at a roster spot.
A solid performance during the preseason could change that, though. With four games coming up, the first of which on Friday night against Tampa Bay, the cards are in Hawkins’ hands to change his fortune.
“It’s always motivation, especially when you know what you’re capable of and you know what you have,” Hawkins said. “You’ve just have to keep moving forward and show everybody else that you’re capable of doing things. Keeping it consistent. That’s the main key. You can flash it here and there, but now it’s a part of playing a consistent role. If I keep doing that, I’ll feel pretty good about it.”
Report: Steelers to Retain Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler on One-Year Deal
Keith Butler will return as the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator on a one-year contract, according to a report by Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
ESPN had previously reported that Butler was seeking only a one-year extension to remain in the position that he’s held since 2015.
The Steelers’ defense finished 2020 fifth in the NFL with 21.2 points per game allowed, the second consecutive season the team finished fifth in the league in scoring defense after coming in ninth, 10th, 11th and 16th in Butler’s first four seasons as defensive coordinator.
Butler, 64, started in Pittsburgh as linebackers coach in 2003, serving under legendary Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and winning two Super Bowls.
A native of Anniston, Alabama, Butler played at Memphis State and spent 10 seasons in the NFL as a linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. As a coach, he spent seven seasons as a defensive assistant at Memphis, one as Arkansas State’s defensive coordinator and three seasons as the Cleveland Browns’ linebackers coach before joining the Steelers in 2003.
The Steelers have at least one vacancy on their defensive staff as defensive backs coach Tom Bradly was not retained. Senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin has interviewed for the vacant Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator position.
Report: Steelers Will Hire Offensive Line Coach Before Officially Promoting Matt Canada
The Pittsburgh Steelers are reportedly waiting to hire their next offensive line coach before officially announcing the promotion of quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac.
According to Dulac, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s desire to ensure the team’s next offensive line coach meshes with Canada’s philosophy has resulted in the delay.
In addition to parting ways with the offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner last Thursday, the Steelers also moved on from offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett. Sarrett had spent nine years with the Steelers organization, the last two leading the offensive line. He took over the position from his mentor Mike Munchak in 2019, who left Pittsburgh to take the same role with the Denver Broncos.
The aging Steelers offensive line struggled during the 2020 campaign, as Pittsburgh owned the league’s worst rushing offense at just 84.4 yards per game. The unit only allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked 13 times all season, but the quarterback rarely held the ball long enough on pass plays to be reached, which was likely by design.
Tight end coach James Daniel also retired since the end of the season and Canada’s promotion would create a vacancy at quarterbacks coach.
Steelers Projected to Receive 4th and 6th Round 2021 Compensatory Draft Picks
Over The Cap is projecting the Pittsburgh Steelers will receive fourth and sixth round compensatory picks in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The Steelers would receive the fourth rounder to compensate for the loss of defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who signed a three-year, $39 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles last offseason. Hargrave recorded 4.5 sacks, five tackles-for-loss, eight quarterback hits and made eleven starts.
Pittsburgh would be given the sixth round selection for safety Sean Davis, who signed a one-year, $4 million contract with Washington. Davis was ultimately cut by Washington prior to Week 1, and rejoined the Steelers, primarily contributing on special teams. He had twelve total tackles and a fumble recovery in 2020.
Over The Cap’s Nick Korte does note that the Steelers’ signing of fullback Derek Watt could negate them receiving the sixth round compensation for the initial loss of Davis.
Pittsburgh could also potentially receive another sixth rounder for linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who signed with the Buffalo Bills last offseason, but Korte projects he will fall beyond the league’s 32-compensatory pick maximum.
The Steelers received a compensatory third round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft to make up for the loss of running back Le’Veon Bell.
The Baltimore Ravens are the only other AFC North team projected to receive a compensatory pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, a fifth-rounder to remedy the loss of current Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Michael Pierce.