Despite free-agent moves, Steelers could target interior offensive lineman in the NFL Draft

When the Pittsburgh Steelers went on an uncharacteristic spending spree in a free agency, they added a new center and guard to an offensive line that underperformed in 2021.

The running game, despite the addition of first-round back Najee Harris, still ranked No. 29 in the league. And Ben Roethlisberger, in his final NFL season, was sacked 38 times, his highest total in eight years.

Those numbers alone were enough to show that, despite having four new starters on the line, the Steelers needed to make further changes. That meant beefing up the interior of the line with the additions of James Daniel and Mason Cole – veterans who have experience playing guard and center.

Cole likely will start in the pivot, and Daniel will occupy one of the guard spots.

“We value competition, and the position flexibility of all the parties involved really kind of tee up that environment,” coach Mike Tomlin said recently at the NFL annual meeting. “I’m excited about watching those guys sorting themselves out.”

The signings mean Kendrick Green, who started 15 games at center as a rookie, could shift back to guard, the position he played in college. He will compete with Kevin Dotson, who started 13 games over the past two seasons, for playing time.

“He had true position flexibility in college,” Tomlin said about Green. “All the other guys do as well. We really feel good about having an opportunity to put the pieces together to put the very best unit that we can on the field and not only that but have quality depth to address attrition and the things that naturally happen during the course of the journey. ”

Injuries last season led to the Steelers starting four players at left guard in a five-week span. That group included Dotson, John Leglue and JC Hassenauer, who all remain under contract, as does veteran backup Joe Haeg.

Although the Steelers have beefed up the depth on the interior, it doesn’t rule them out from taking a center or guard in an early round when the NFL Draft commences next week.

The top interior prospects are expected to be available when the Steelers select at No. 20. The list is headed by guards Kenyon Green of Texas A&M and Zion Johnson of Boston College and center Tyler Linderbaum of Iowa.

Green played on each side of the offensive line at Texas A&M and also has a tackle experience.

“Green is an athletic phone-booth controller with the strength, power and explosiveness to blow defenders off the ball in the running game,” NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks wrote in his assessment of the guard / center prospects, saying that Green excels in a pin-and-pull scheme, but he displays enough athleticism to thrive in zone-based or man-blocking systems, as well. ”

Johnson spent two years at Boston College after transferring from Davidson. He was a team captain and academic All-American last season.

NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said Johnson is “just really smart, really tough, can play any of those three interior spots. He’d be one I’d keep an eye on. ”

The last three times the Steelers used a first-round pick on a guard, they selected David DeCastro at No. Kendall Simmons at No. 24 in 2012. 30 in 2002 and Alan Faneca at No. 26 in 1998. That amounted to a six-time Pro Bowl pick (DeCastro), a five-year NFL starter (Simmons) and a Hall of Famer (Faneca).

The last time the Steelers used a first-round pick on a center – 2010 at No. 18 – they secured a nine-time Pro Bowl selection in Maurkice Pouncey.

The center class is headed by Linderbaum, whose knocks are his weight (290 pounds) and his arm length (31 1/8 inches).

“That’s the only thing that’s hurting him or he’s a middle of the first (pick),” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “He’s not as big as some teams would prefer and he doesn’t have the arm length that teams would prefer, but he’s a great player.”

Jeremiah agreed.

“He takes great angles, he’s nasty, he’s got unbelievable football intelligence,” he said. “He has everything you want from an intelligence and toughness standpoint. There’s just times where he gets a little bit of size on his nose, and he struggles a little bit with that. ”

Top 5 interior linemen

1. Tyler Linderbaum (center), Iowa, R-Jr., 6-3, 290

After transitioning from the defensive line, he started 35 games at center during his final three seasons at Iowa. He won the Rimington Award last season and was named a first-team All-American and Big Ten Lineman of the Year.

2. Kenyon Green (guard), Texas A&M, Jr., 6-4, 325

After starting his college career at right guard, Green moved to the left side in 2020. Last year, he played four positions – both guard and tackle spots. He was a first-team All-American and a finalist for the Lombardi Award.

3. Zion Johnson (guard), Boston College, Sr. 6-3, 316

Johnson began his college career at Davidson, then transferred to BC for his junior year. He started seven games at left guard that season and became a first-team All-American last year as a 12-game starter that included one game at left tackle.

4. Cole Strange (guard), Chattanooga, R-Sr., 6-6, 301

Started five years on the offensive line by taking advantage of a “super senior” season provided by the pandemic. He became the second player in program history to participate in the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine.

5. Cam Jurgens (center), Nebraska, R-Jr., 6-3, 290

In 2019, Jurgens became the first freshman to start at center for Nebraska since freshman eligibility was restored in 1972. He finished his career with 18 consecutive starts at the position.

Best fit for Steelers, first day

Kenyon Green, Texas A&M

If the Steelers want to beef up the interior in the first round, Green is the best fit, given his abilities to play on both sides of the line of scrimmage

Best fit for Steelers, second day

Dylan Parham, Memphis

In his first two seasons, the 6-3, 311-pound Parham started 28 games at left guard. He started 11 games at right tackle in 2020 before moving back inside and starting 11 games last year at right guard.

Best fit for Steelers, third day

Justin Shaffer, Georgia

Shaffer, who is 6-4, 330, started almost exclusively at left guard for Georgia and was a second-team All-American in 2021 when he made 15 starts and played 88% of the offensive snaps for the national champs.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at jrutter@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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