Training camp gets closer and we continue on with our Steelers Training Camp Previews by position. This installment focuses in on the offensive line as I get you acquainted with the 2010 offensive line roster.
Training Camp Preview – Defensive Line |Training Camp Preview – Safeties |Training Camp Preview – Linebackers | Training Camp Preview – Offensive Line | Training Camp Preview – Tight Ends | Training Camp Preview – Wide Receivers | Training Camp Preview – Running Backs | Training Camp Preview – Quarterbacks
Overview: There are more questions than answers headed into the 2010 season in regards to the offensive line. The Steelers already have lost Willie Colon to an Achilles injury and the lack of quality draft picks at the position over the recent years could come back to haunt the Steelers this year. Rookie Maurkice Pouncey is a great pick, but is after all a rookie. He will likely be forced to earn his money quickly and hopefully will be under contract when camp starts as he can’t afford to miss any time. New offensive line coach Sean Kugler has been brought in to replace the jettisoned Larry Zierlein and has his hands full. This group will be expected to run block and run block well as the Steelers return more to the power running game in 2010.
Max Starks: Max started all 16 games at left tackle for the Steelers in 2009 and is now headed into his 7th season with the team. He will never be regarded as a top left tackle in the league, but does hold his own at times. A return to more of a smash mouth running game will be a welcome sight for him as well. With the recent injury to right tackle Willie Colon, it has been speculated that Starks could move to the right tackle spot if a suitable left tackle could be found via free agency. As it looks right now though, Starks will open up camp as the Steelers starting left tackle, but that could change quickly. Starks is still learning the position and new offensive line coach Sean Kugler might be able to get more out of him, especially in the running game.
Chris Kemoeatu: Kemo is probably the only lineman you can etch in stone right now at a guaranteed position at left guard. He was banged up for most of the 2009 season and missed the final 6 games of the season due to knee, arm and wrist problems. He is a massive force and if he can stay healthy should be able to improve the running game on the left side. He does have a temper and it can lead to unnecessary penalties at time. Chris should also benefit from a younger coach such as Kugler. The history of knee problems is starting to be a concern, but if he can improve his inside game and second level blocking, the Steelers should be able to run the ball well in 2010.
Justin Hartwig: The clock is certainly ticking on center Justin Hartwig. The drafting of Maurkice Pouncey out of Florida in the 1st round of the 2010 draft signaled the future for the Steelers at center. 2009 was not good production wise for the veteran either and while he started all 16 games for the Steelers at center, he was perhaps one of the weakest links on the line. He did have offseason shoulder surgery and has not been rushed along during the OTA and mini-camp sessions. Doug Legursky has been filling in as the No.1 center in his absence and as a wrote a few weeks ago, it is not unthinkable that Hartwig could be released if the Legursky can beat him out in training camp. Regardless, this will indeed be the final year that Justin wears the black and gold and hopefully if he stays, he can perform above his previous playing levels.
Maurkice Pouncey: Since the Achilles injury happened to right tackle Willie Colon, there has been a ton of speculation as to what the right side of the Steelers offensive line will look like with him out for the season. Maurkice Pouncey was drafted as the teams future center, but was first worked at right guard one the rookies got started. With Hartwig and Legursky still under contract, it allows them to take advantage of his versatility. By all reports, Pouncey has performed so well at right guard; he stood to beat out starter Trai Essex, even without the injury to Colon. Now that the Colon is indeed out, many scenarios include Essex moving to right tackle to fill the void left by Willie. Regardless of who lines up at right tackle, I think Pouncey will be the team’s day 1 starter at right guard. If not then it will happen at some point during the season. Pouncey has a ton of upside and how fast he can learn the game could be the only thing that slows him early in the season. He looks to be a leader and a mainstay of the Steelers offensive line for many years to come.
Trai Essex: The play of Essex at right guard in 2009 was not above the line as head coach Mike Tomlin likes to say. He is a converted left tackle and has struggled in the transition to right guard. As mentioned earlier, it is speculated that Essex will compete with a long list of players for the right tackle spot now that Colon is gone for the year. Another scenario is Essex moving back to left tackle and Starks moving to the right tackle spot, but I call this a long shot at best. For now I will list Essex as the Steelers starting right tackle, but no way should that be considered a lock. It is there for the taking and Essex will indeed have to earn it. Moving back to the tackle position may be a blessing for him as well. We shall see very quickly.
Jonathan Scott: I list the free agent signed Jonathan Scott next only because of the uncertainty at right tackle. Scott was brought over as a free agent from the Buffalo Bills where he played under new line coach Sean Kugler. Kugler must have seen enough in him at Buffalo for 2 season to even let this signing happen. Scott played in 10 games last year and started 8. He is considered a guy that can play both tackle spots, but should get a shot early in camp as a replacement for Colon at right tackle. If he does not win that spot, he will immediately be on the bubble and will have to earn a spot on the 53 man roster as a swing tackle. It can be feast or famine for him and he was only signed to a one year deal. We should see his fate decided early on by which unit he lines up with and on what side. In no way should he be considered a roster lock.
Tony Hills: Hills has disappointed since being drafted by the Steelers in the fourth round of the 2008 NFL Draft and has only seen playing time in one game in his second season after being inactive for every game as a rookie. On paper it seems he will be battling for a backup left tackle spot, but may get a shot at the right tackle spot as well. He will indeed be a challenge for coach Kugler and I would not hold my breath that he makes the roster. His chances of doing so have been aided in by the injuries to colon and rookie Chris Scott. Watch the early training camp reports on Hills as they better be glowing if he is to stick this year.
Ramon Foster: Foster made the Steelers roster in 2009 as an undrafted free agent after impressing the coaches in training camp last year. Foster played in 14 games last year and started four at left guard in place of the injured Chris Kemoeatu. With all of the shuffling last year on the line, it is hard to say where the best home for Foster might be. Signs point to him being a left side swing guard and tackle, but he might even be given a chance to compete in the mess at right tackle as well. I am pretty confident he makes the 53 man roster and would not be surprised to see him line up at any position on the line besides center. He is versatile and another year under his belt should help immensely.
Doug Legursky: Doug Legursky is a blue collar Steelers type player. He is willing to do anything to play and even lined up as the fullback and delivered a crushing block that ended in a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown last season against the San Diego Chargers. Legursky has been getting extended time as the first team center as starter Justin Hartwig recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. How Legursky plays when training camp opens could make Hartwig expendable as I mentioned earlier. A lot also depends I think on if second year guard Kraig Urbik can improve as well, but more on that later. Regardless of where he lines up, Legursky should have no problems making the 53 man roster, but strange things could happen just the same and could be a final 53 man cut down release as well.
Kraig Urbik: There is so much we do not know about what Urbik is or isn’t. The reports last season out of training camp were not flattering and the 3rd round pick out of Wisconsin was on the inactive list his entire rookie season. Early OTA reports have Urbik lining up as the second team center this offseason behind Legursky and he could be the biggest key to whether or not Hartwig is made expendable or not. Urbik played right guard and right tackle in college, so it figures he is competing as a right side swing guy as well as an emergency center. His progress in year 2 needs to be drastic or he could find himself without a job very quickly come week 1. Watch him closely during camp practices and pre-season games as to where he lines up and what unit he is on as it will help shed many of the unknowns about him. All we have to go on with Urbik is his 2009 preseason game tape and it was average at best.
Chris Scott: Scott was drafted by the Steelers as their first of three selections in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft out of Tennessee. He was projected to battle for a left side position, but all of that has been put on hold since he suffered a foot injury while working out at the University of Tennessee last month. Scott underwent surgery immediately and there has been conflicting reports on how long he will be sidelined. Some say October, while others say he may be ready in 8 more weeks. In all likelihood he will start the season on the PUP list, which is never good for any rookie at any position. Any camp time and pre-season game he misses hurts his chances of making the roster. The best case scenario right now for Chris is that he gets healthy fast and receives some playing during camp to get a practice squad spot or is placed on injured reserve by the Steelers and try again in 2011. We will find out soon enough about his status on day one of training camp.
Dorian Brooks: Dorian is an undrafted free agent from James Madison and is a bit undersized. He has been worked at the right guard spot in reserve duty during the OTA sessions and trying to get a few snaps in at center as well. Brooks is a converted defensive lineman and considered very athletic for his size. In the end though, his overall strength and lack of ideal size will make it very hard for him to make the roster. At best he will be auditioning for a practice squad spot, but I see that a long shot right now as well. For right now we shall call him a camp body.
Kyle Jolly: Jolly is another undrafted free agent lineman in camp and played left tackle in college at North Carolina. Kyle has done well to survive the first round of cuts as draft picks were signed, but will be hard pressed to make this roster as an undrafted free agent, like Foster did last year. Both he and Brooks will be the first roster casualties should any street free agent lineman be more to the Steelers liking. For now though, Jolly is another training camp body.
Likely Training Camp Depth Chart:
LT1 Max Starks LT2 Ramon Foster LT3 Tony Hills LT4 Chris Scott LT5 Kyle Jolly
LG1 Chris Kemoeatu LG2 Ramon Foster LG3 Doug Legursky LG4 Chris Scott
C1 Justin Hartwig C2 Doug Legursky C3 Maurkice Pouncey C4 Kraig Urbik
RG1 Maurkice Pouncey RG2 Trai Essex RG3 Kraig Urbik
RT1 Trai Essex RT2 Jonathan Scott RT3 Ramon Foster RT4 Tony Hills
Summation: As the Steelers offensive line goes in 2010, so will the Steelers go. Being down one veteran and one rookie is already making a suspect line even more suspect. Questions at center and right tackle add to the problems. New line coach Sean Kugler will earn his stripes real quick if this line can gel together quick enough for the Steelers to get through the Ben Roethlisberger suspension. The onus would seem to be on the running game hard and heavy at least for the first 4 weeks and teams might dare the Steelers to prove they can run against 8 and 9 man fronts and dare them to throw. Rookie Maurkice Pouncey will likely be a starter from the get go and previous draft picks Tony Hills and Kraig Urbik have to show the team they are not bust. This offensive line could see as many as three new starters depending on what free agents are available as cuts around the league take place. Keep your fingers crossed as it is sure to be a bumpy ride with this group.