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Making short- and long-term sense of the Steelers’ right tackle situation

With the NFL season reaching Week 10 (already), players are beginning to clearly carve out roles for their franchises going forward. That particularly applies to rookies: 10 of which have started a game at quarterback, a new single-season record, but across any spot to be consistently relied-upon contributors.

From a prima facie standpoint, then, Steelers fans should be quite content with the fact that Broderick Jones, the team’s first-round pick, is on the precipice of making his third start with Pittsburgh’s offensive line. But, the situation is significantly more complicated than that.

Jones has already gotten two starting nods, at left and right tackle. In fact, he’s been a big of a sparkplug: despite switching sides — and playing 97.5% of his snaps at Georgia at left tackle, per PFF — Jones has displayed sound pass protection and even sealed lanes in the run game. His first career start garnered a 74.8 overall PFF grade, including a 77.2 run-blocking mark, and Jones hasn’t allowed more than one pressure in any of his two starts.

Without a doubt, the patience of Jones to continue progressing despite not being named a Week One starter is a positive development for the Steelers. What’s also been impressive is Jones’ skill to handle NFL competition rather effortlessly. Mike Tomlin and the rest of his staff have to be pretty bullish about Jones’ continued ascension and future as a franchise tackle, on either side.

Yet, the circumstances of Jones’ appearances can’t be ignored.

The former Bulldog played 51 snaps against the Texans and started vs. the Ravens because of a knee injury to primary LT Dan Moore Jr. Last week, too, Jones only saw the field as a result of Chuks Okorafor being benched, reportedly for claiming that Pittsburgh’s offense should have knelt instead of trying to run plays down 10 against the Jaguars.

In his weekly media availabilities, Tomlin indicated that Jones would start at right tackle in Jones’ place once again against the Packers this weekend. But, what about for the remaining eight weeks of the season?

For one, Okorafor has not exactly excelled. His 61.6 PFF grade mirrors the majority of his overall NFL career, which has demonstrated flashes but an overall lack of consistency. Having allowed only two sacks all year, it would be an exaggeration to claim that Okorafor is bad, but revisiting the All-22 from a game typically underscores several missed blocks or pressures allowed.

To complicate matters further, Okorafor is in the second year of a three-year, $29.25 million extension (which, frankly, I didn’t fully understand when it was doled out last offseason). Okorafor’s average annual value ranks only 32nd among all pro tackles, but benching a player making over $9 million a season is a fundamental mismanagement of resources.

In light of the fact that Okorafor’s contract carries a dead cap of just north of $3 million this offseason, and with him being a free agent in 2025, it feels like Omar Khan and the Steelers are approaching an inevitable situation: trade or cut Okorafor, and hand the reins over to Jones (or someone else). Whether or not that occurs for the rest of 2023 remains to be seen, but in light of dwindling player/management relationship and financial shrewdness, it feels probable that Jones or another young, cheap, high-upside tackle would fill Okorafor’s spot.

In many ways, the irony isn’t lost on me that Tomlin’s lone significant shift this season — excluding having OC Matt Canada call plays on the sideline, which actually may have proven dividends — came because of a benching. Due to his all-world athleticism and pedigree, Jones probably should have been seeing meaningful snaps much earlier.

Ultimately, Jones has earned a starting role, whether due to his control or not. At the end of the day, that comes at Okorafor’s expense — while it’s unfortunate in light of his lengthy team ties and because of a disgruntled comment, that very well may be best for the Steelers’ chances of succeeding.


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