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Exploring the nuances of the Steelers’ left tackle battle

Beyond seeing fan favorites and stars trot out onto the field for the first time since June, what makes NFL training camps so compelling are the positional battles that take shape. Across the next few weeks, players on every team will duke it out for not only starting spots, but also active roster slots.

In Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the Steelers will be no exception to those very competitions. While there won’t be much intrigue regarding who the team’s starting quarterback will be at the end of camp in 2023, there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding Pittsburgh’s starting left tackle.

From 2021-22, the team’s LT1 has been Dan Moore Jr. The former fourth-round pick has been rather inconsistent after being thrust into the starting lineup, permitting 14 sacks and 87 pressures in his first 33 games. Moreover, Moore’s 10 penalties were tied for the eighth-most among tackles in 2022.

Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan understood the need to upgrade the team’s offensive line, and capitalized on such a chance in both free agency and the draft. After signing Isaac Seumalo, the Steelers made Georgia’s Broderick Jones their 2023 first-round pick, even trading up two spots for the former Bulldog left tackle, who played in and won each of the last two National Championships.

With August having just begun, it appears that it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Moore or Jones will be Kenny Pickett’s blindside protector in Week One against the 49ers. That very well seems intentional on Tomlin’s behalf, to afford both the ability to hone their crafts over the next month.

If the Steelers do elect to start Moore, it would mean cultivating further continuity on the team’s offensive line, which definitely jelled throughout last season. A big reason for such improvement was health: all five of Pittsburgh’s starting O-linemen played at least 1,110 snaps and started all 17 games. It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that the Steelers were the only squad to accomplish that feat in only the regular season.

Moreover, Moore is still only 24, and has two full seasons of starting under his belt. That’s a rather rare position for a tackle to be in, especially one who was not drafted at a premier position. Moore has already experienced the ebbs and flows of a long campaign, not to mention opposed some of the most formidable rushers in the NFL — it’s not impossible to think that those factors could materialize in some improvement in his third year, especially after finally having the same offensive line coach in Pat Meyer.

On the other hand, if the Steelers do not start Moore at left tackle, there’s a possible ripple effect that he could compete with Chuks Okorafor at right tackle. However, given that Okorafor was signed to a three-year, $29 million deal last March, that narrative may already be written.

Ultimately, if Moore does not best Jones, there could be a real chance that he gets traded, either now or down the line. The Texas A&M product is owed only $940,000 in yearly cash with a cap hit of $1.1 million, and has one more additional year on his rookie contract before he hits the open market. Interest could materialize, but actually agreeing to terms of a trade that close before the season seems unlikely.

Transitioning to Jones, it’s paramount to remember that Pittsburgh drafted him at the position that it did. There’s no concealing interest in expecting the 6-foot-4 Georgian to be a franchise cornerstone, and to make a positive impact right away.

If Jones isn’t the Steelers’ Week One starting left tackle, some will already utilize the dreaded four-letter word: “bust.” Inherently, if Jones does start on the bench, it will put pressure on both him and Moore, with fans affording the latter almost no room for error.

The tier of edge rushers that Pittsburgh will encounter in the early weeks is also significant. Looming in Week One is Nick Bosa, one of the best pass rushers in the pros. A week later includes the Browns’ Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith. After that? Maxx Crosby, Chandler Jones and Tyree Wilson. Simply put, that’s a gauntlet of incredible EDGEs, and a slate that would keep any OL coach from sleeping properly.

As detailed earlier, Moore has gone faced rushers of those caliber already; that characteristic alone could make him the favorite to start in Week One. Yet, there’s also truth to the fact that Jones will eventually need to mitigate such competition if he’s to meet expectations. Doing so in a rookie’s first NFL start may not be very likely, though, meaning that Jones could struggle out of the gate — which only amplifies a pressure chamber.

Fundamentally, the Steelers’ choice of Dan Moore Jr. or Broderick Jones to be the team’s primary left tackle opens a pandora’s box, no matter the outcome. The trajectories of each will be inextricably linked: if Moore starts Week One, then he’ll be expected to be perfect to fend off the newcomer. Meanwhile, if Jones gets the nod but is subpar, his confidence could be compromised if Tomlin goes back to Moore.

Ultimately, there’s no simple, clear-cut answer for the Steelers regarding their left tackle competition, even though the team’s first pick was a LT at the top college program. It’s crucial to remember all of the ramifications of each possible first-team left tackle, both now and down the line — something which the Steelers are assuredly aware of, and will weigh as they make their decision before Sept. 10.

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