I have been getting a few questions via email, Facebook and Twitter about the state of the Steelers offensive line going forward into 2011, so I thought I would address it a post as sort of a State of the Union type piece of who is under contract, who is not and so on. As always you can refer back to the week to week offensive line grading I did play by play of the through out the entire 2010 season.
Maurkice Pouncey – There really should not be any full explanation needed here as Pouncey was superb as a rookie. He will need to get a bit stronger in 2011 and work on some technique issues, especially against big body types that line up over top of him, but all in all you could not ask for anything more than what he gave the Steelers in 2010. His ankle should be easily fully recovered and although some speculate the Steelers should let Doug Legursky play center and Pouncey should move over to right guard, I just do not see it happening. Even if the Steelers fail to draft an interior lineman in April, Pouncey is easily a fit at center going forward and hopefully will be for the next 10 years as well.
Flozell Adams – In my weekly game offensive line breakdowns, Adams could of easily be considered the Steelers second best lineman by the end of the season. He struggled with the move from left to right tackle early in camp, but became a student of the process and looked every bit of a right tackle after the half way point of the season. Adams is under contract for 2011 at a cost of 5 million dollars and there is not any signing bonus associated with the deal. Adams has yet to say whether he\’ll he come back for his 14th season or call it a career, but he has yet to win a Super Bowl and getting as close as he did in 2010 should be enough for him to give it one more go. Through week 15 of the season, Adams played every snap in only 7 games, but did manage to log the 3rd most snaps by a Steelers offensive lineman on the team behind only Pouncey and left guard Chris Kemoeatu. Adams gave up his fair share of quarterback sacks and pressures and is certainly a better right side run blocker than a pass protector, but having a complete offseason to continue to work on his footwork and technique, should help him in 2011. He can be plain out dominating at times, but does have a habit of taking plays off as well. All of that said, he would be fine as the starting right tackle in 2011 and it might give the Steelers an opportunity to kick free agent Willie Colon inside to right guard or let Colon serve as a right side swing backup for both guard and tackle.
Max Starks – Starks started the season as the Steelers starting left tackle, but suffered a high ankle sprain early in the season and a serious neck injury in the week 9 game against the Bengals. Starks was subsequently placed on injured reserve and reportedly needed surgery on his neck, but should be ready to go by the time training camp rolls around. His early season play was below the line and one would have to consider that his play was hampered because of the injuries. Starks signed a $26.3 million, four-year contract, prior to the start of the 2009 season which means he is under contract through the 2012 season. Unless the Steelers draft a left tackle early on in the draft that can challenge Starks for his starting spot, you have to pencil him in as the starting left tackle in 2011.
Chris Kemoeatu – Kemoeatu really struggled at left guard in 2010 and it has to be a concern going forward. His worst game came against the Bills in week 12 where Kyle Williams had his way with him. Kemoeatu also recorded 12 penalties on the season and a few where right out stupid decisions on his part. He has a mean streak, that when used correctly, plays to his advantage, but many times it did not. He gave up the early pressure against the Packers in the Super Bowl that resulted in an interception when the arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was hit on the play. Kemoeatu struggled many times pulling to his right on some of the Steelers bread and butter runs to the right where he either was late getting to the hole or just failed hitting his man squarely altogether. He is not agile and moves pretty much on a straight line. Often times he looked out muscled in pass protection and was walked deep back into the pocket. He is currently signed through the 2013 season, but if his play does not improve, 2011 could very well be his final season as he will become quite affordable to cut after 2011. Unless a soon to be drafted interior lineman or free agent comes and outplays him in camp, it looks like he will be the starting left guard if there is indeed a 2011 season. That said, it would not surprise me if the Steelers gave a rookie or free agent (if one is even signed) every opportunity to unseat him either. By the end of 2010, Kemoeatu had certainly become perhaps the weakest link on the offensive line.
Ramon Foster – The Steelers started 2010 with Trai Essex at right guard and he was followed by Doug Legursky after Essex got dinged up and underachieved. Legursky struggled in his starts at the position and the Steelers turned to the undrafted free agent Foster. Foster started against the Raiders in week 11 and held the spot for the remainder of the season. After a shaky first few games, he seemed to settle down and played above the line the rest of the season. He looks about average in both his run and pass blocking and his weakness appears to be inside to his left when playing right guard. Foster is still under contract and depending on what happens in the draft and free agency, could indeed start the season at right guard, but I would not place any bets on that. Foster seems better suited as a guy that play both guard spots in a pinch and perhaps both tackle spots in case of emergency. He has some good experience on his side now and it will be tough for him not to make the 2011 opening day roster. The Steelers certainly want to upgrade the spot, so if Foster does start in 2011, he most certainly will only be keeping the spot warm.
Trai Essex – As I mentioned earlier, Essex started the 2011 season at right guard sort of by default. The Steelers initially were thought to be open to the rookie Pouncey challenging for that spot, but Pouncey impressed so much at center that the Steelers released veteran Justin Hartwig prior to the start of the season. After a good week one performance against the Falcons at right guard, things were looking good for Essex. He injured an ankle in week 2 against the Titans and did not start or play again until week 8 against the Saints. He struggled upon his return to the starting lineup and the Steelers settled on Foster at the starting right guard spot. Essex then became mostly a swing tackle guy at that point on and saw snaps at nearly every position other than center going forward. He also played an extra blocking tight end role when both Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth missed time with injuries. Essex was up and down in that role and likely not in the Steelers plans moving forward into 2011. He is currently an Unrestricted free agent according to the soon to be ending CBA and it is tough to see the Steelers re-signing him for 2011. I will not totally rule him out being on the roster next season, but if he is, it is certainly because of injury. I see him likely signing elsewhere as a backup.
Doug Legursky – Legursky logged nearly 450 snaps during the entire 2010 season and made his first start at center against the Packers in the Super Bowl. He played all 3 interior line positions as well as fullback in several jumbo packages on the goal-line. Legursky is known for his short area quickness, but did struggle in his 3 starts he made at right guard early in the season in place of the injured Essex. Legursky is strong as an ox and has good straight line speed. He is a very adequate backup center and I thought he played very well in the Super Bowl. Being as he was signed as an undrafrted free agent initially, he enters the season as an exclusive rights free agent and must sign with the Steelers if offered a contract. I see no reason why this does not happen and he should be back with the Steelers as a backup center and a swing-guy that can play both guard spots in a pinch. Many fans think the Steelers should let him start at center and move Pouncey to right guard, but I just do not see that happening. From where I sit right now, I can not see him not being on the Steelers 2011 opening day roster as a backup lineman. I could even see an instance or two where he might be an outside long shot to challenge for either starting guard spot, but that is a BIG long shot at that.
Jonathan Scott – Scott came over from Buffalo with new offensive line coach Sean Kugler and was given a one year deal at or near the minimum for his years in the league. Scott was thrown into the deep end of the pool quickly when Starks suffered an ankle injury in week 1 against the Falcons and his pass blocking was pretty bad initially as he gave up 3 pressures and looked inadequate for the 20 snaps he was in the game. He looked even worse in his first start the next week against the Titans and it carried over to the right tackle spot as he was forced to play several snaps when Adams came in and out of games. When Starks was finally lost for the season in week 9, Scott became the starter and looked bad through the following weeks leading up to the week 15 game against the Jets. In that game, Scott will be most remembered for not blocking down inside that allowed Jason Taylor to come free and tackle Mewelde Moore for a late safety. Scott was also yanked and yelled at in the game against the Panthers after missing a few early assignments, but was soon back in the game and it seemed as if the light stayed on after that. He played very well throughout the playoffs and saved his best performance of the season for the Super Bowl. Scott is currently an unrestricted free agent and early word is the Steelers have had early talks perhaps to re-sign him for next season. If signed, he likely will have plenty of competition to beat out to make the final roster. He was certainly one player that showed development late in the season. Knowing his faults though, it is tough to see Scott being any more than a backup left tackle at this point. Should the Steelers draft a true left tackle in the draft and Starks shows he can return from his neck injury, Scott certainly would be on the outside looking in.
Willie Colon – Colon has to feel snake bitten. He missed out on free agency last offseason as he was deemed a restricted free agent because of the 2010 labor issues. He was tendered a one year deal and signed with hopes of playing well in 2010 and then hitting his big pay day. Colon then suffered a torn Achilles late in June and was lost for the season instead. He is currently deemed an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but that could change once again depending on how the labor strife plays out. The Steelers seem open to bringing him back, but might even ask him to try to kick inside from right tackle to right guard if Adams decides to come back for his remaining season under contract. Colon was easily the shining star on the Steelers 2009 offensive line and if healthy, could likely even beat out Adams still. At the very worst though Colon would be an upgrade as far as depth goes should he not be a starter, but if the Steelers indeed re-sign him, I see him starting some where on the line in 2011. Perhaps he kicks inside and then back outside in 2012 depending on who the Steelers draft. I think it boils down to how much Colon is looking for as far as a contract goes. Missing all of 2010 with his injury will certainly help the Steelers in keeping the price down on him. Colon also is still only 27 with only 50 games under his belt, so there might be a few teams that are willing to pay him, should the CBA play into his favor and he results in being unrestricted instead of restricted.
Tony Hills – Can a 4th round pick be considered a bust? If it can, that is exactly the classification that needs to be given to Hills. Drafted by the Steelers in the fourth round of the 2008 NFL Draft, he just never materialized into the left tackle they thought he could be. He spent most of the 2010 season on the weekly inactive list and saw just under 45 snaps of actual playing time against the Titans and the Patriots. Hills is currently a restricted free agent under the current labor deal about to expire, but regardless, it is hard to see him being re-signed even as a camp body. The Steelers will certainly want to move on in a different direction. The best Hills can hope for is to be signed as a camp body by another team in the offseason.
Chris Scott – Scott was drafted by the Steelers as their first of three selections in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, but broke his foot while training in the offseason at the University of Tennessee and needed surgery. He missed all of training camp and pre-season as he was placed on PUP. He was removed from PUP and placed on the active roster when Starks went down and was placed on IR, but was inactive for every game for the remainder of season. All we have really heard about Scott is that he is right side tackle that also has seen some practice reps at right guard as well. He is of course currently under contract and will have to compete against several others in camp to get a roster spot. The unknown future of Adams and Colon will certainly play a big part in his future moving forward. He might really need to excel at an inside spot like right guard to make the roster. There are just so many unknowns with Scott after he missed all of the preseason that it is hard to even guess at what type of future he might have with the Steelers at this point.
Dorian Brooks – When Pouncey went down for the Super Bowl he was placed on IR and Brooks was elevated to the active roster, but made inactive against the Packers. He is a converted defensive lineman that played some guard in camp for the Steelers and also started some training at center. He spent the entire year on the Steelers practice squad. As it looks right now, he will be with the Steelers all offseason and will likely compete to make the practice squad again in 2011 as it looks like he is very eligible for it. Other than a camp body, you should not have high hopes for him being part of the Steelers offensive line future.
Kyle Jolly – Like Brooks, Jolly spent the 2010 season on the practice squad and was re-signed to the expanded offseason roster after the Super Bowl. Jolly will merely be a camp body at tackle if he makes it that far and the best he can hope for is to make the practice squad again in 2011. That will be a tough job all to it\’s own for the undrafted free agent out of North Carolina.
Nevin McCaskill – McCaskill was signed to the Steelers offseason roster following the Super Bowl after bouncing around on several practice squads after going undrafted in 2007. McCaskill is a 27 year old guard and merely an offseason roster player. He will be hard pressed to be on the roster when the Steelers report to training camp. If he makes it that far, he would surely have to knock some socks off to survive the first roster cuts. I do not see it.