PITTSBURGH – It's been about 15 years since savvy general manager Kevin Colbert had to seriously investigate any and every opportunity to land a potential franchise quarterback, having long ago earned the luxury to not have to worry about the most important position in all of professional sports.
And it's been a good half-dozen years, at least, since he'd had to ponder any sort of significant alterations to his offensive line – much less the wholesale changes of 2021 – enjoying prolonged productivity from another critical position group of which replacements and upgrades are always in short supply. Alas, these are different days in the Iron City.
Drastically different, in fact.
After going from the league's last remaining unbeaten team to an aging offense that limped down the stretch and imploded in a playoff beatdown at home by the Browns, Colbert's work began in earnest. He navigated a quirky and sometimes awkward contractual dance with Ben Roethlisberger, and the future Hall of Famer eventually agreed to a substantial pay-cut to come back for what is virtually certainly his final season. All the while stalwarts like center Maurkice Pouncey retired and guard David DeCastro was let go (he had medical red flags and is essentially retired) and tackle Alejandro Villanueva eventually moved on via free agency (to the rival Ravens, no less). It left for a much more tricky and sticky offseason for Colbert in stewarding the quarterback and offensive line positions on this roster, with this seemingly a season of significant transition for the Steelers (and with potentially more to follow).
Can Big Ben return to glory? Will Najee Harris rush for 1,000 yards in his rookie season? Get the latest Steelers scoop from former cornerback Bryant McFadden, our expert who's on the ground in Pittsburgh, by downloading the CBS Sports app. If you already have the app, favorite the Steelers to get up-to-the-second news.
It's a challenge that Colbert, a Hall of Fame-worthy executive, isn't shirking in any way, and a good portion of this offseason was spent sorting out linemen talent and seeking the right combination of names that fit, while also trying to ascertain if anyone on this roster might be the successor to Big Ben (and if not, where to find him). In the present, however, at this very moment sitting in the Heinz Field stands before Saturday's open practice on a glorious summer afternoon, Colbert's thoughts are fixated on the group before him, one charged with holding off head coach Mike Tomlin's first-ever losing season and trying to uphold the excellence this spoiled fanbase has come to expect of the general manager's assemblages.
This is Pittsburgh, after all, where Super Bowl hopes are an annual rite of passage, and while there may be more questions about this team - at so many foundational positions - than anyone is accustomed to, Colbert and Tomlin believe most of the answers can be found from within.
"I think at this point the only thing we're focused on is obviously we've got this group for now," Colbert told me. "Long term, we'll be scouting for the future. But when you get into the potential short terms for next year (in free agency), I don't think any of us have a real grasp on that yet, because there are so many variables - salary cap, what team you have in 2022 as opposed to now. Long term, all we can do is evaluate this group, scout the next group and see where we are in the offseason."
The Steelers were surprised by the timing of the Pouncey retirement, Colbert said. DeCastro's medical concerns put his future in doubt (many around here anticipate a retirement announcement at some point) and there were constraints and other needs that projected Villanueva would not be back.
"When we went into free agency we knew it was going to be tough to keep them all," Colbert said. "We knew last year our senior class, so to speak, was going to graduate and it was going to be tough to keep them together, even before the pandemic, before the cap went down. And then when the cap went down, we were really up against it."
Colbert, criminally under-heralded for what he has done for this organization since joining it from Detroit in 2000, has mined this sort of roster terrain in the past. It isn't new to him. But it's been quite some time since there was this much uncertainty about a Steelers team in the present and for the future. And the growing pains are apparent early on.
On Saturday, with veteran guard Trai Turner not taking park and with expected starting left tackle Chukwura Okorafor being very slowly ramped up and likely starting right tackle Zach Banner also "working through some things medically," as Colbert put it, the "first-string" offensive line was a very tough watch. They got overwhelmed and engulfed repeatedly in red zone situations and for most team periods of the practice involving the run game.
The unit charged with protecting Big Ben on this day (not that there was any threat of the quarterback actually getting hit in this controlled setting) was, left to right: Dan Moore Jr, Brandon Walton, rookie center Kendrick Greene (who has a real shot to start), Rashaad Coward and Joe Haeg. If you haven't heard of many of them, you are not alone. It got ugly, fast.
"We were leaking a little bit in some areas," Tomlin suggested in an understated tone, "but it's an opportunity for guys to show their mettle and rise up and put their conditioning on display."
Straight-shooting defensive line standout Cam Heyward conceded that the grizzled defense "should be winning these matchups," and that the offensive line "hasn't been the lineup they wanted out there," with so many vets not participating fully yet. But, ultimately, for the reigning AFC North champs – "it doesn't matter who is out there, they've got to get the job done."
Far too often, rookie first-round running back Najee Harris had nowhere to go from the moment he got the ball, though he still produced several magical moments. It wasn't ideal, but it's something he might have to get a little used to.
"Not every play is going to be blocked, and I know that," said Harris, a truly impressive young man who will soon enough become the face of this offense. "When a play is not blocked, what can I create?"
Colbert is gambling that Okorafor is better on the right side than the left, and that Dotson, who has shined in spots, can be durable through a 17-game season, and that Green, a third-round pick from Illinois, might be ready to replace a legend in Pouncey at some point. On the bright side, at least the Steelers will have a full training camp and three preseason games to sort this out; had this transition occurred a year ago, with no exhibitions or joint practices, the mission may have been impossible.
"Potentially, five of the five could be veterans, depending on who wins the center job," Colbert said. "It might be one rookie in the group, and the rest of them, they're veterans. It's like putting a band together - you have to get four or five people from different bands to come together as one. So having more opportunities to play (in preseason) is definitely big."
As for the quarterback spot, and who mans it beyond this season, your guess is as good as anyone's. Can Roethlisberger rebound from a brutal second half in 2020? How far can the offense evolve beyond the five-yard passes that come out in under two seconds that defined it a year ago? How large of a role for Harris (his touches will be abundant, I'd suggest)? How many of these quarterbacks – Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins and Josh Dobbs are also on the roster – will be in Pittsburgh beyond this season?
"In the long term, only one of them (Rudolph) is contractually obligated beyond this season," Colbert said. "So how that group sorts itself out remains to be seen. Obviously, Ben is Ben, and he is doing great. Mason is showing up as that potential No. 2, and Dwayne and Josh are having a nice battle to see who can be the three or who can push two.
"So short term, it's good. Long term, I'd say that's part of what we have to continue to do – to always be looking for that next quarterback. and even when Ben was younger we still scouted all the quarterbacks."
Indeed, but Father Time started getting his clenches on this group a year ago, and he tends not to let go easily. Ben's younger days are long behind him, and for the first time in a very long time there is instability at QB and throughout the offense. The buzz about the Ravens and Browns is everywhere, and some believe the Steelers stint as the hunted in this division could be waning.
"It's our job not to listen to that," said Heyward, a native of Pittsburgh, and in many ways the voice of the franchise. "And you know for as much as everybody wants to talk, there was only one AFC North winner last year. I know it's a new year and I know everybody is ready to crown a champion, but we don't play for a paper championship. Let's line it up, and see what happens."