Training Camp Preview and Roster Projections: Offensive Line (Updated)

Because sooner or later, we’ll all be trying to predict the final 53…

OFFENSIVE LINE

Likely Roster Spots:
9-10

Projected Starters: LT Max Starks, LG Chris Kemoeatu, C Justin Hartwig, RG Maurkice Pouncey, RT Flozell Adams

Key Training Camp Battles:
Pouncey vs.Trai Essex vs. Ramon Foster for RG; Hartwig vs. Doug Legursky for C; Jonathan Scott vs. Kraig Urbik vs. Adrian Jones vs. Tony Hills for 1-2 roster spots.

Projected for 53-Man Roster: (9) Starks, Kemoeatu, Hartwig, Pouncey, Adams, Essex, Foster, Legursky, Urbik

Projected for IR and PUP: Willie Colon, Chris Scott

Analysis: A few weeks ago, Pittsburgh’s offensive line appeared mostly set except for at right guard and possibly at center. Then, disaster struck when the Steelers’ best offensive lineman, right tackle Willie Colon, ruptured his Achilles tendon during an offseason workout and was lost for the season.

The Steelers’ offensive line has generally been the team’s weakest position unit over the last 4-5 seasons and last fall Pittsburgh was the only team in the NFL not to have a former first- or second-round draft pick on its offensive line roster, which is why I was not jubilant yesterday when the contract of director of football operations Kevin Colbert was extended for a long-term deal.

Yes, Colbert is good, particularly in drafting in the first round, and I am mostly glad to see him stay in his hometown. Most impressive, he has built two Super Bowl championship teams.

However, he has not put an emphasis on the offensive line in recent years or the Steelers would have been in the playoffs every season since 2004 and most Steelers fans would have longer life expectancies, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But hey, no team in the NFL will have a better set of third-team linebackers on its training-camp roster this fall!

However, Colbert deserves a great deal of praise for securing Flozell Adams as a replacement for Colon late Thursday. Yes, Adams is old, having played in 12 seasons for the Cowboys who decided to go with the younger Doug Free this offseason instead of paying Adams a large salary.

Although he has clearly lost a step on his 350-pound+ frame, Adams was still a serviceable left tackle last year for a playoff team, was in the Pro Bowl just two seasons ago, remains a quality run blocker, and should be better in pass protection at right tackle than left tackle.

He is far superior to any other possible Steeler starter at right tackle and his addition could definitely make the difference between the Steelers going to the playoffs this fall or missing them for a second consecutive season for the first time since 2000

Now, the big question is if rookie Maurkice Pouncey starts immediately over Trai Essex at right guard. assuming the Steelers can sign their first-round draft pick and get him into camp soon. Although he started his last two seasons at Florida at center and that is where he will start for Pittsburgh as early as 2011, Pouncey did play guard his freshman year for the Gators and should provide an upgrade in athleticism over Eseex.

No, Essex was not good last year in his first campaign as a starter, but he was better at that spot in 2009 than 2008 starter Darnell Stapleton or previous starter Kendall Simmons, who was by far the worst first-round draft pick of the Colbert era and an enormous bust for a first-round offensive guard.

In most games last season, the Steelers ran behind the right side more than 60% of their plays. Now, they were doing that because Colon is probably the best run-blocking right tackle in the NFL, but they could not have done so if Essex was not an upgrade over the physically weaker and smaller Stapleton and Simmons.

Another candiate at right guard is Ramon Foster, an undrafted rookie free agent from the University of Tennessee who emerged as the Steelers’ No. 6 offensive lineman last training camp and saw extensive action at guard last season. Foster had some good moments but mostly did not play like an NFL starter. Foster should be a solid-game day reserve in 2010, but his best chance to start is probably at right guard in 2011.

Veteran center Justin Hartwig appeared like a life-savior in 2008, when he joined the Steelers and brought stability to the center position. No, Hartwig was not exceptional in 2008 and was overpowered by bigger and better defensive tackles, like Darnell Dockett in the Super Bowl against the Cardinals. But he was a major improvement from previous starter Sean Mahan.

Last year, though, Hartwig was regularly dominated by mammoth 3-4 nose tackles and quality defensive tackles, ranking as one of the worst starting centers in the NFL. Prior to the Colon injury, he was set to face a training-camp battle from Doug Legursky for the starting center job. Hartwig is coming off shoulder surgery and Legursky is quicker, stronger and younger.

Then, folowing Colon’s loss, Hartwig had to be considered a strong favorite to hold onto the job. With new starters likely in place at right tackle and right guard, including a rookie, new Steelers coach Sean Kugler seemed likely to elect to go with a cerebral, experienced, veteran center rather than have three new starters.

However, the candidacy of Legursky got a boost with the addition of Adams, assuming the veteran provides a stablizing force at right tackle. But also hurting Legursky’s chance of starting is that Pittsburgh plans to move Pouncey back to his natural center position, probably right after the 2010 season.

Pouncey will eventually join a long line of Steeler centers selected to multiple Pro Bowls that included Bill Walsh, Mike Webster, Dermontri Dawson (who is deserving of joining Webster in the Hall of Fame) and the under-rated Jeff Hartings.

The strength of the Steelers line now likely lies on the experienced left-side of tackle Max Starks and guard Chris Kemoeatu. Starks is a serviceable NFL left tackle, making him worth the big cash the Steelers pay him annually. He still has trouble with top-tier, smaller, pass rushers and gives up a lot of space initially in pass protection.

Starks, though, usually fares well in 1-1 pass blocking, although he is not a dominant run blocker like he should be as a 345-pound tackle who often faces under-sized, weakside defensive ends. That will have to change this year, since Pittsburgh will likely run tailback Reshard Mendenhall more behind the left-side.

Kemoeatu is now clearly the Steelers best run blocker. A subpar pass blocker, I still contend Kemoeatu would better as a right guard. However, it took him four years to learn the playbook at left guard, so moving him is not in the Steelers’ plans. Kemoeatu began the 2009 season easily playing the best of his career and earning a spot on the Sports Illustrated mid-season All-Pro Team, although that was probably too much praise for his play.

However, he missed four games with a knee sprain and was not as impressive upon his return. The Steelers need Kemoeatu to play as he did early in last season.

After the Steelers signed Jonathan Scott and drafted fifth-round tackle/guard prospect Chris Scott from Tennessee, I was projecting Pittsburgh to keep 10 offensive linemen on its 53-man roster, but could not figure out which one player would be cut among the Scotts (no relation), Hartwig or Kraig Urbik, a third-round pick in 2009 who played poorly last preseason and did not dress for the Steelers on gamedays in 2009.

But the season-ending loss of Colon was coupled with Chris Scott fracturing his right foot, meaning he will miss at least the first six weeks of the season on the PUP list and may then be transferred to the injured reserve, essentially giving him a redshirt season. That made the 9-man roster seem much clearer. Now, we are back to more uncertanty and keeping 10 offensive linemen is probably not needed.

Second-year pro Kraig Urbik was a highly-productive and articulate, four-year starter at Wisconsin. However, 2009 marked one of the worst NFL draft classes for offensive guards in recent memory and he did not represent great value in the third round of that draft. My memory of the pick was the NFL Network then showing multiple clips of Urbik getting beat again and again in one-on-one, pass protection drills at the Senior Bowl workouts.

The hope remains that Urbik can develop into a Kemoeatu-type run blocker at right guard with more intelligence. Urbik, though, probably only made the 53-man roster in 2009 due to where he was drafted and not how he performed in training camp and the preseason, where he was awful.

The fact that Foster, an undrafted rookie free agent, passed Urbik on the depth chart less than week into training camp was revealing. However, it is too early to give up on Urbik.

As J.J. showed in this excellent analysis, there are multiple reasons why Jonathan Scott was available several weeks into free agency and signed for the veteran’s minimum contract after the Bills made no attempt to resign him. Remotely decent offensive tackles garner huge contracts in free agency, since they rarely hit the open market.

Scott is a journeyman tackle who now provides some depth at that position. He was 50-50 to make the team before Colon’s injury and 80-20 to make the team after the injuries of Colon and rookie Chris Scott, with a 25% shot of starting. Now, following the addition of Adams, he is back down to a 40% shot of making the 53-man roster, and unlikely to dress on gamedays if he does.

Playing for new Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler last season in Buffalo, Scott yielded 8.5 sacks in eight starts at tackle. He was not initially the starter for a Bills’ line that was by far the worst in the NFL last season, but was thrust into the position after departures (including star LT Jason Peters, who was traded to the Eagles) and multiple injuries.

Fourth-year veteran Tony Hills is a longshot to make the team. However, his odds of doing so went from very little to a fighter’s chance after the injury of Colon, because Hills physically still has pass-blocking potential. Unfortunately, he has yet to show those skills in any of the last three preseasons and has rarely dressed for the Steelers on gamedays. Moreover, his roster odds went back to extremely slight after the signing of Adams, who could move over to left tackle if Starks went down, because he has spent most of his Dallas career protecting the blindside.

Veteran Adrain Jones, who was recently signed, was also thrust into the mix at right tackle. But Jones was never on a regular-season NFL roster in 2009 despite being healthy. He is just fighting for a roster spot and those odds went from 30% to at best 10% after the signing of Adams..

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  • FW

    I'd like to see:

    LT: Starks
    LG: Kemoeatu
    C: Legursky
    RG: Pouncey
    RT: Foster

    Backups: Essex, Hills, Urbik, Jon Scott.

    Cut: Hartwig, Adrian Jones, Kyle Jolly

    PUP: Chris Scott (practice squad after PUP)

    IR: Colon

  • IsraelP

    “Projected Starters: LT Max Starks, LG Chris Kemoeatu, C Justin Hartwig, RG Maurice Pouncey, RT Trai Essex”

    Maurkice.

  • IsraelP

    “missing [the playoffs] for a second consecutive season for the first time since 2003.”

    What does this mean? The Steelers did not miss the playoffs in either 2002 or 2004.

  • Ted

    Good catches, Israel. Corrections have been made. Should have said first time since 2000. I guess I had the 2002 season expunged from my mind due to a poor run game and abysmal pass defense. Still, T-Gun and Hines Ward were great that season.

  • Ted

    I would not mind seeing that, but do you really think the Steelers are going to have a trio of first-year starters line up next to each other on the o-line? I sure don't.

    Your unit probably has more upside more talented than what I am projecting, but that is just too much inexperience and change for a unit where continuity is more important than at any other position group in football.

  • FW

    A trio of first-year starters, but not a trio of rookies. I think that's a big difference. Legursky and Foster have had time to learn the system.

    Legursky v. Hartwig: Hartwig simply allows too many sacks, and doesn't have the sand in his pants to anchor versus strong AFCN NTs. Not sure that he'll magically fix that now that he's on the wrong side of 30. Legursky is more compact, and if he can call the blitz pickups, I would give him a shot. We're bringing in a new OL coach and a new OL philosophy, so what better time to take a saw to the deadwood?

    Pouncey v. Essex: Essex is a decent short-term option at OT and G, but I think Pouncey can come in as a rookie and show better stuff right off. He'll have some early lapses as he learns the mental part of it, but he can be a truly dominant RG for us by season's end. A year on the line will also help him if we decide to transition him to center in 2011.

    Foster v. Essex: Foster, like Legursky, saw playing time in 2009, and so at least has his feet wet. The major knock on Foster is foot speed. Problem with that argument is that Foster's faster than both Essex and Colon. Again, it comes down to the mental aspect, but I like Foster's demeanor, and think he could be a solid RT. He's also got better arm length than Colon, who's slow and short-armed.

    I think you plug in the upside unit and let them cohere, rather than plug in has-beens and never-weres and pray for them to make chicken salad out of chicken whatever. Plus, the bumpy part comes when Ben's out anyway, not that I wish any harm on Byron or Dennis.

    That said, I doubt it goes my way, just saying I wish it would.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_U3PZQ7KH4H6JKRFO6CU5INJIXY ChillWill

    @FW,
    Man I TOTALLY Agree with you on that wishlist of a lineup…

    - Hartwig is just horrible at center…he's the #1 reason why we could NOT run the ball successfully in short yardage situations last year…period.

    - Essex — see above for reason #2 why we couldn't run the damn ball. I'll take a rookie over him ANYDAY of the week.

    - Foster or Jones should get a shot at play right tackle. They can't be much worse than Essex right? And like you said..I love Foster's demeanor and physical stats.

  • Eddie

    We've gotta get Hartwig out of there. We've just gotta. If they don't like Legursky then I would favor Pouncey starting right away at Center. Let him start his pro journey while Ben is cycling helmetless around town studying tape at home.

  • Guest

    Just like you wanted, the Steelers just signed Flozell Adams. Also, the 19th pick just got signed with a 10.5 M SB so Pouncey's contract should be done soon at 18th pick.

  • Guest

    Your projection includes only Essex as a Tackle backup. I don't think so.

  • Ted

    That is a good observation and the strongest argument for why J. Scott will still make the team. Moreover, Essex is physically more of a guard. But I think the signing of Adams makes J. Scott even more expendable than when the Steelers had Colon.

    While Colon is a superior talent compared to Adams at this point of their careers, Colon can only play the right-side at tackle, whereas Adams can play both sides. Thus, if Max Starks goes down, Adams may be the best option at left tackle, a position where Essex has also seen action.

    Essex can play both tackle positions and now you hopefully will not have to remove him from a starting guard spot to do so. Finally, Foster could also play RT in a pinch, so I still contend the Steelers will keep the 9 OL that I am now projecting.

    Barring at least one injury to Starks or Adams, J. Scott would not dress for gamedays even if he is on the opening-day 53, and the Steelers might have to cut a better prospect or a potential contributor at another position to keep Scott due to the logjam and depth Pittsburgh has in fall camp at LB, CB, DL, WR and RB.

    Finally, cut Crezdon Butler and he could end up a starter for another team in two years. In contrast, the Steelers can find a veteran, journeyman of J. Scott's caliber midseason if needed. That all being said, I still think you may be right that Scott is kept around to have another tackle reserve.