The Steelers are not short on starters who are entering the final years of their contracts. Many of the team’s top players, including JuJu Smith-Schuster, David DeCastro and Eric Ebron, will be looking to cash in with bigger contracts next year.
Chukwuma Okorafor only has 19 games of starting experience on his resume, but when it comes to players in contract years, there might not be another one on the roster with as much at stake.
Okorafor is making the transition from right to left tackle, where he will be charged with protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side after the team decided not to re-sign longtime starter Alejandro Villanueva. It’s an important job for any team, much less one with 39-year old Ben Roethlisberger, who is 18 months removed from reconstructive elbow surgery.
“I don’t think there is any more pressure playing left tackle, left guard or center,” Okorafor said Thursday afternoon following the final session of OTAs this spring. “It’s still protecting Ben. And it’s blocking for Benny [Snell] or Najee [Harris] or whoever is running the ball. So whether it’s left side or right side, it’s just having to block well.”
That might be true, but teams value blindside protectors. The pandemic took a toll on free agent salaries this year — see Smith-Schuster getting $8 million on a one-year deal — but not for tackles. Trent Williams of the 49ers signed a contract that made him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league at slightly more than $23 million per season. David Bakhtiari of the Packers and Laremy Tunsil of the Texans earn $23 and $22 million per season.
There are 24 tackles in the league averaging $10 million or more per season on their deals. Heck, even Villanueva, at age 32 and nearing the end of his career, signed for $7 million a year with the Ravens.
“I don’t really focus on that yet,” Okorafor said. “I still have 6, 7, 8 months until I have to look at that. I don’t want to think too deep down the road. We’ll see what happens. It’s a business. So we’ll see how it plays out.”
For now, Okorafor will concentrate his efforts on transitioning to the left side. During his first two seasons as a reserve, he practiced on both sides as the swing tackle, but all 19 of his career starts have come at right tackle or as an extra tight end. Villanueva started 90 consecutive games for the Steelers during his run as the starting left tackle from 2015-2020.
There is different footwork and some different hand placement, but perhaps the biggest adjustment will be working alongside a different guard. In that respect, Okorafor is fortunate because second-year guard Kevin Dotson started at right guard for a few games last season when DeCastro was injured. Now it will be Dotson and Okorafor lining up on the left side.
“The more reps we can get the better,” Okorafor said. “He knows what I like to do, I know what he likes to do, and we can grow.”
The Steelers would like nothing more than for Okorafor to excel and earn a second contract with them following the season. When they invested a third-round pick in him in 2018 they viewed him as a developmental player with high upside.
The way the Steelers approached the draft shows they still believe that. There was a very deep group of talented tackles in the draft, but the Steelers didn’t select one until the fourth round when they took Dan Moore Jr. with the 128th overall pick.
“Even if they drafted a left or right tackle in the first or second round, I still feel like I would have to show the team what I can do,” Okorafor said. “I don’t see it like they didn’t draft a guy in the first round so my job is somewhat safe. It’s not safe. Every day, it’s showing the coaches, showing yourself, showing your teammates.”©2021 PG Publishing Co. Visit at post-gazette.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.