By Cian Fahey
After Alan Faneca left the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008, the Steelers looked to the then 25-year-old Chris Kemoeatu to become his replacement. After a fine first year in the starting line-up, Kemoeatu received a five year deal worth $20 million.
Skip ahead to the 2012 off-season and Kemoeatu\’s status as a Steelers starter is gone while his position on the roster at all is under threat.
Because of a change-over in offensive philosophy, the Steelers have recently moved away from the running game in favor of their franchise quarterback and talented receivers, Kemoeatu\’s worst traits were highlighted while his talent went unused.
On the field, Kemoeatu was always a little rash with his discipline while also struggling in pass protection. What he did do was give the Steelers a fantastic pulling guard in the running game. Pulling both he and Heath Miller on a regular basis was a staple of Bruce Arians offense when Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall were the focus.
However once the Steelers moved away from the run, Kemoeatu\’s abilities became redundant. He rarely got the opportunity to show off his talent of crushing defenders instead becoming more (in)famous for costly penalties and crazy decisions such as more than once diving onto a pile of players at the end of running plays in critical situations.
Despite the fact that Kemoeatu is no longer a starter, his contract still makes him the sixth highest charge against the team\’s cap for next season.
Kemoeatu\’s $5.2 million cap charge makes him the highest paid non-starter on the team\’s roster. Considering that the guard position is one of the weakest sections of the depth chart entering the 2012 NFL off-season, it says about the fall of Kemoeatu that he isn\’t even capable of beating out Doug Legursky or Ramon Foster to be a starter.
Kemoeatu wasn\’t built for this team\’s offense. He is more suited to the Steelers\’ teams of years gone-by. Logic says that he likely won\’t be with the team much longer, but as of yet he still remains a part of the organization.
Coincidentally, a guard who perfectly fits what the Steelers offense should be trying to do next season lost out on a chance to be a starter prior to this season. That player, is Tony Hills.
Hills was the most impressive performer of the group of players who were competing to start at right guard prior to last season. In preseason games, he showed better strength, versatility and awareness than any of Chris Scott, Legursky or even Foster.
Obviously that consistency wasn\’t there in practices because Hills was released before eventually signing with the Denver Broncos. Hills did nothing in Denver, but considering how long it took him to adjust to the Steelers\’ offense and become comfortable on the field with his teammates, that is understandable.
Hills is not a free agent this year, he will be under contract with the Broncos. However bringing him back, much like the team did with Bryant McFadden and Byron Leftwich in recent years, wouldn\’t be difficult to do.
Why would they bring back a player who failed to even make the roster? Well, it\’s simple.
Hills was in contention to be the most athletic offensive lineman on the Steelers\’ roster prior to being released. Coming out of college, after being selected in the fourth round, Hills was a raw talent who blatantly needed time to adjust to the NFL game.
Just as he appeared to be grasping a handle of himself on the field, the Steelers released him. That adjustment and growth would not be something that Hills would have to deal with if he returns while he also would understand his role, and position, on the team without wondering where he best fit.
As a former offensive tackle at Texas, Hills is the inverse of Kemoeatu. He excels as a pass protector whether it be in space or in tight opposed to being a crushing run blocker. After losing Mendenhall late last season, and the overall transition to a new offensive style, Hills\’ pass protection would have greater value to the Steelers than it did 12 months ago.
Standing at 6\’6, Hills wouldn\’t be capable of being a pulling guard or blowing open holes in the mold of Kemoeatu, but he would provide a certain level of athleticism and potential which is lacking on the interior of the line.
The Steelers can\’t compete for guys like Carl Nicks in free agency while David DeCastro will likely be gone by the time that they pick in the draft. With holes elsewhere on the roster, the Steelers would be smart to consider re-signing one of their own.
At worst, they make a similar deal to the one they made with Arizona for McFadden and he just adds to the competition in camp. At best, his positive play shows on the field as part of Todd Haley\’s new offensive scheme.