Steelers OT Chuks Okorafor takes both contract year, move across offensive line in stride

·4 min read

Jun. 10—A day after teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster spent a good portion of his 13-minute media session openly discussing free agency and maximizing his value for when he hits the market next spring, Chuks Okorafor laughed when asked for his thoughts about playing out a contract year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"I mean, honestly, I have one job, and it is to play, whether it's my second year or my last year on my deal," Okorafor said Thursday during a video conference call with media after an organized team activities session. "I don't really focus on that (contract) yet. I still have — what? — six, seven, eight months until I have to look at it."

Another connection between the situations involving Smith-Schuster and Okorafor is each is expected to make something of a position switch in 2021. Both, if executed, figure to help their value on the open market, too.

But Smith-Schuster's move from being a slot-centric wide receiver to playing the outside is something that has not been openly discussed by coaches. Instead, it's Smith-Schuster himself campaigning for a tweaked role.

Okorafor's move across the offensive line from right to left tackle, by all indications, was a coaches' decision.

"Honestly, I'm just going to do whatever I am told," Okorafor said. "Whether it's left tackle, whether it's right tackle, I have done both, so it doesn't really matter that much to me. I won't be working any more or less (pending) that."

Barring injury, Okorafor will begin the season as the Steelers' No. 1 left tackle. A 2018 third-round pick, the Steelers long have viewed Okorafor as a starting tackle. And while he has started at least one game during each of his first three seasons, each was because of injury.

Okorafor held his own with aplomb as a rookie tasked with blocking Denver Broncos future Hall of Famer Von Miller during a November 2018 start. He also was part of a line that neutralized a strong Los Angeles Rams front seven in another start the following season. In 2020, Okorafor started the final 15 games after Zach Banner suffered a torn ACL during the opener.

With Banner recovered this season and Alejandro Villanueva gone via free agency, the Steelers' plan is to re-insert Banner at right tackle and move Okorafor to the other side, where Villanueva started for six seasons.

Though the decision was made for reasons unrelated to a relative valuation of Okorafor vs. Banner, traditional football orthodoxy dictates the left tackle being the more important lineman because he is tasked with protecting a quarterback's blind side.

"I feel like there isn't any more pressure," Okorafor said. "If it's playing left tackle, left guard or center, it's still having to block for (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) and block for ... whoever's running the ball. If it's left side, right side, center, it doesn't matter to me. It's moreso about having sure whoever is playing, it's just having to block well."

Okorafor hasn't previously "earned" a starting job in the NFL. In what was termed by coach Mike Tomlin a four-way open competition for the right tackle job during the 2019 camp, Okorafor finished third and spent most of that season as a healthy scratch. Last year in camp, he lost out to Banner in another open competition to start at right tackle.

This year, it might be a stretch to say Okorafor has been given a starting gig by default. But it's also true the closest thing to a public endorsement Tomlin has given him is saying Okorafor is "probably penciled in" as the starting left tackle.

Of course, the Steelers' actions show they have some level of comfort with the idea. They let Villanueva and Matt Feiler walk in free agency and didn't sign an outside free agent to starter-caliber money. The Steelers also did not draft a tackle until the fourth round.

"Honestly, I feel like (regardless whether) they took a (tackle) in the first or second round, I feel like you still have to come in every day and kind of show the team, show the guys, show everyone what you can do," Okorafor said.

"I don't really see it as, 'Oh, we didn't draft a tackle in the first round, so my job is somewhat safe. It's not safe. Everything is open. So I have to come in everyday and show it to myself and show your teammates."

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Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at cadamski@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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