The Carolina Panthers have just announced today that they have signed center Fernando Velasco, whom the Pittsburgh Steelers signed following the season opener to replace the injured Maurkice Pouncey at the time.
Velasco went on to start the next 11 games for the Steelers until he suffered a season-ending injury of his own, going down late against the Ravens with an Achilles tear.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert previously expressed the belief that Velasco would be ready to participate around training camp, so his signing should be a good indication that he is on track with his recovery.
Even though the Steelers signed their other reserve center, Cody Wallace, to a modest three-year deal early this offseason, there was still the belief held by some that the team continued to hold interest in bringing back Velasco, who is not only capable of playing center, but also both guard positions as well.
Colbert’s previous comment from earlier this offseason, for example, appeared to express that interest, assuming that the market would be suitable for such a reunion.
With Velasco now off the market, however, it does add a bit of clarity to the offensive line picture as we move forward, knowing that he is no longer a wildcard.
The starting offensive line, of course, is well in place, and behind them are Mike Adams and Wallace as the primary interior and exterior reserves and the likely seven offensive linemen that will be active on game days.
Behind those two is Guy Whimper, who is likely seen for now as the fourth tackle, and who was also stretched out to play guard as well last year, as the eighth lineman.
If the Steelers choose to carry nine offensive linemen, it would figure to come down to one of two players—either second-year former undrafted free agent Chris Hubbard, or rookie former fifth-round draft pick Wesley Johnson.
Hubbard spent just about all of the offseason last year practicing with the second-team offensive line, and then proceeded to spend the full regular season on the practice squad before signing a futures contract to remain with the team. He is a guard whom the Steelers also plan to work at center to increase his versatility.
Johnson, meanwhile, was primarily a college tackle, but has in fact played at all five positions during his career, rather than merely aspiring to be a five-position player.
The Steelers seem to be fairly fond of him, including new offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who values technicians, but there’s no certainty that he will be ready as a rookie, and could be seen to use some fine-tuning on the practice squad. He doesn’t have the ideal size of an offensive tackle at this level and could benefit from a year in the weight room.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that both Hubbard and Johnson make the 53-man roster at the expense of Whimper, or perhaps some other young player like David Snow or Will Simmons makes a surprise emergence. But they all now seem to have a better shot at sticking around with Velasco no longer an option.