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Predicting the Steelers’ Starting Offensive Line for Week 1

The Steelers have long stood on both patience and tradition when deciding when rookies will get their crack at the starting lineup, and 2023 was more of the same. But will 2024 be different?

You can count on it.

In 2023, first-round pick Broderick Jones saw just four snaps in the first three weeks, despite calls from fans and the media for him to be the week-one starter. It wasn’t until injuries in week four pushed him into the lineup that he saw more than a handful of snaps in a game, and it was week five when he got his first — and, to date, only — start at left tackle. Following a disciplinary decision made by head coach Mike Tomlin to bench then-starting right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor after the week-eight loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Jones took over at that spot for the remainder of the season.

Other rookies were similarly walked into the lineup. Second-round pick Joey Porter, Jr. didn’t get his first start until week eight, despite clearly being the team’s best cornerback in limited playing time over the first six games. Third-rounder Keeanu Benton didn’t get into the regular rotation until week nine, and fellow third-round selection Darnell Washington was only a starter throughout the season depending on which package the team chose to use to start their first drive each week.

That’s how it’s been done in Pittsburgh for a long time, and it’s not likely to change in 2024.

Or is it? Maybe.

This off-season has already been unique — maybe crazy is a better word — for the Steelers. They acquired two veteran quarterbacks: Russell Wilson, a nine-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion; and Justin Fields, a former first-round pick. They traded away 2022 first-round pick and primary starting quarterback Kenny Pickett. General manager Omar Khan and assistant general manager Andy Weidl continue to put their fingerprints all over the roster via free agency and the draft, having rebuilt significant portions of the depth chart in just two off-seasons.

Traditions are great, but sometimes you have to break them. C’est la vie, and all that.

I firmly believe the Steelers will go against their own grain this year at multiple positions, so allow me to set some expectations.

Left Tackle

Let’s start here, since it’s the biggest question mark on the Steelers’ offensive line entering the first stages of the post-draft off-season training schedule. For the last three seasons, the left tackle position has been manned by Dan Moore, Jr., a former fourth-round pick. Moore, himself, was thrust into the starting lineup from day one, but that was mostly out of necessity: the entire offensive line group may have been the weakest in the team’s history, and there were zero offensive tackles outside of Moore with any realistic chance of being a quality starter. In his case, “better the devil you know” was not an accurate statement — the “devils” they knew were a bunch of cast-off retreads looking for any place to latch on.

In the intervening years, Moore has been a hard-working favorite of the coaching staff, but the production has never matched the effort.

That brings us to 2024, and the Steelers have two contenders for the left tackle position outside of Moore. Broderick Jones was a left tackle in college and, while his run blocking is currently better than his pass blocking, his lone start at left tackle in 2023 may well have been his best start. It’s his natural position, it’s where his collegiate experience came, and the team has been open about their desire to move him there in the near future. How near, of course, remains to be seen, but it would make sense to give him an entire training camp and pre-season to reacquaint himself with the role. My expectation for 2024 is Jones is the week-one starter on the left.

Right Tackle

And that takes us to the other side of the line.

2024 first-round pick Troy Fautanu, who was inexplicably still available at the draft’s 20th pick despite being considered a consensus top-three prospect at one of the league’s three most coveted positions. Logic would dictate that he should have been gone well in advance of the Steelers’ selection, but there he was. It was a no-brainer.

But Fautanu had most of his collegiate experience at left tackle, so why even draft him?

Because he’s a rare mix of prototypical size, production and experience, with 33 career starts and over 2,200 offensive snaps. Add to that the fact that University of Washington QB Michael Penix, Jr. was left-handed, and you can start to connect the dots. Yes, I know that playing left tackle for a left-handed QB does not automatically translate to playing right tackle for a right-handed QB. The footwork is completely opposite. It’s one of the reasons why Broderick Jones didn’t set the world on fire at right tackle last year. But Fautanu is a more experienced player entering his first year in the NFL than was Jones, and some of the skills of being the front-side protector to Penix will transfer to right tackle in the NFL. Looking at the way the team has handled rookies before, we can see that Jones made it into the starting lineup before the midpoint of the season in 2023, despite having just 13 career starts in college. Add to that the fact that the next guys in line would be Moore, 2023 seventh-round draft pick Spencer Anderson, and a handful of other guys who collectively have zero career starts, and it seems there is a strong chance that Fautanu beats Moore for the right tackle spot for week one outright.


This is where it gets really interesting.

Three years ago, the Steelers started rookie Kendrick Green at center, largely for the same reasons they also started Moore that year. The talent just wasn’t there in a depleted offensive line group. In retrospect, it may be hard for many of us to imagine that Kendrick Green was the best possible option, but the Steelers’ brass saw it that way, and that’s what ultimately matters.

Fast forward to 2024, and the Steelers find themselves in a remarkably similar position, though this time of their own doing. There was no retirement of a future Hall of Fame center (Maurkice Pouncey) that hamstrung the organization; this time around, the team actively chose to first release Mason Cole, the starting center for the last two seasons, and then to not actively pursue any free-agent options to the point of actually signing someone. So, as it currently stands, the three most likely options to start at center are Nate Herbig, who has more games played in which he didn’t start than those in which he did; James Daniels, who has some experience at center in the NFL; Isaac Seumalo, who has 33 career snaps at center in the NFL; and 2024 second-round pick Zach Frazier. You can count out Seumalo, who is the team’s starting left guard and who was the best offensive lineman on the roster in 2023. And, barring some drastic swing at further shaking up the line, you can also rule out Daniels, who has been the team’s starting right guard for the last two years.

That leaves Herbig and Frazier, and I think approximately zero people outside of the Herbig family would think Nate has any reasonable chance at beating out Frazier for the starting position in training camp.

Left Guard

It’s Seumalo. There’s nothing else to discuss.

Right Guard

So you probably expected me to say something about Daniels that is similar to what I just said about Seumalo — but hold the phone a moment.

Seumalo is under contract through the end of the 2025 season. Daniels’ contract, though, expires at the end of 2024. On the surface, it looked like the Steelers drafted Mason McCormick in the fourth round this year to serve as a backup at guard for 2024, then possibly take over for Daniels in 2025. But, there is at least an outside possibility that Daniels could be traded. Now, I’m reading between some really fuzzy lines here (okay, more like forming an opinion based on the scantest of evidence), but the choice of McCormick over some players at much bigger areas of need is telling. It’s likely that what I already said is the exact scenario the Steelers are preparing for, just making sure that they aren’t promoting a rookie to right guard if they don’t have to next year by drafting McCormick and letting him sit for a season. But the team is still in need of another quality wide receiver to go with George Pickens and rookie third-round pick Roman Wilson, so someone like Daniels could immediately become a trade option, given the state of his contract (high base salary, last year of control). While unlikely, it’s possible the selection of McCormick was to give them exactly this sort of scenario — after all, McCormick may have been one of the best value picks in the draft, being an utterly dominant guard but falling to the fourth round due to his dominance coming against smaller-school competition. They thought enough of him to bring him in for a pre-draft visit. In fact, he was the only true guard they brought in, so they likely were specifically targeting him.

None of this is to say that I expect anyone but James Daniels to be the starter at right guard when the season kicks off. But I’m pointing it out because the stars are at least partially aligned for the Steelers to feel bold enough to make a splash trade involving Daniels if the return was right. Something like, perhaps, a trade for 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel, Commanders receiver Terry McLaurin, or Raiders receiver Davante Adams.

Unlikely? Yes. But never say never.

Whatever the lineup looks like on opening day, if it’s not Jones-Seumalo-Frazier-Daniels-Fautanu or Jones-Seumalo-Frazier-McCormick-Fautanu, it’s almost certain it will look like one of those two at some point. I, for one, can’t wait to see the show.

It would be hard for the line to look worse than it did in week one of the 2023 season, that’s for sure.


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