Grading The Players - The Offensive Linemen

Following is a series grading the players and strength of position for the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Steelers.<br><br> <b>Today: Offensive Linemen</b>

Like a good baseball team, the Steelers are strong up the middle on their offensive line. But the Steelers have enough question marks on the corners to make their offensive line a doubt.

The biggest question will be at right tackle, where Oliver Ross will get the first shot at the starting job. Ross began last season as the starter at right guard, but struggled mightily and was quickly replaced by rookie Kendall Simmons. The 6-5, 310-pound Ross is more of a natural tackle, however, and could flourish on the right side, where he'll be asked to be more of a mauler than a finesse player. Grade C-

On the other side, Marvel Smith moves over from right tackle to replace the departed Wayne Gandy. The Steelers made a last-ditch effort to keep Gandy, but it was a half-hearted effort at best. That's because they felt Smith was more than capable of handling the switch, just as Gandy had done when he joined the Steelers. Smith was considered a top-notch pass blocker when he came into the league and he's blossomed as a run blocker after three seasons on the right side. He's not a Pro Bowl player, but he's very solid. Grade B+

Left guard Alan Faneca was named to his second Pro Bowl last season, but didn't really deserve it. Faneca played well at times, but was too inconsistent in 2002. The Steelers' running game goes behind Faneca and center Jeff Hartings, so the Steelers need a return to form from Faneca. Grade B+

Hartings has settled in very well at center as a blocker. But he has struggled with the center exchange, especially in the red zone. Those fumbled exchanges are killers and Hartings must correct that problem. He played through some serious injuries in 2002 and it showed at times, but Hartings should be ready for a solid season in 2003. Grade B

Simmons is just the kind of offensive lineman the Steelers love. He's a high-effort player and has the potential to get better. That's a good thing because he struggled through the usual rookie problems last season. Simmons needs to improve his strength to better handle big strong defensive tackles, but he has the potential to match Faneca. Grade C+

The team signed veteran Todd Fordham of Jacksonville to fill Ross' old role as the swing-man on the line. Fordham has played every position on the line except center and head coach Bill Cowher likes to have a player like that on the roster as a backup to save a roster spot on game days. Fordham's nothing special, but he can fill in in a pinch. Grade D

With Hartings hobbled by injuries last season, Chukky Okobi got a chance to play in several games and proved he has some value as a center in the NFL as long as he's not asked to do too much. When Okobi was asked to play guard, he struggled. He could start for several NFL teams at center. Grade C

Keydrick Vincent always has a smile on his face, but the backup guard is all business on the field. After making the team as an undrafted rookie in 2001 and starting one game that season, Vincent was also called up to fill in at times in 2002. He'll never be a star, but like Okobi, Vincent could start for a lot of teams in the league. He just lacks the athleticism to play tackle, however. Grade C-

The Steelers selected Mathias Nkwenti in the fourth round of 2001, the same season they took Okobi in the fifth. Nkwenti has the best body of any lineman on the team, offensive or defensive. He's a chiseled 6-3, 300 pounds. But Nkwenti is nowhere near consistent enough for Cowher to give him any playing time. He'll make a great play and then miss on an easy one. This is a make-or-break season for Nkwenti. Grade D

If Nkwenti loses his spot on the team, it will be because the Steelers feel Josh Burr is too good to get rid of. The 6-9, 320-pound Burr is a mountain of a man who spent the 2002 season on the practice squad. He has some talent, but is likely no better than a backup right tackle. Grade Incomplete

Veteran Calvin Collins was signed after taking the 2002 season off. He's started games at center and guard in the league, but like Fordham, isn't much more than a journeyman. Who knows what Collins has left? Grade Incomplete

It's going to be difficult for youngsters like Deon White, Jimond Pugh, Jack Fadule or Dave Costa to win a roster spot with the Steelers this season. But at least one of them will have a good shot of landing on the practice squad.

Final analysis: The Steelers may not have the best offensive line in the league - although it's certainly in the upper half - but they may have one of the deepest units. The left side from Hartings over to Smith should be solid and if Ross plays reasonably well, the Steelers could be very, very good. Overall Grade B

Dale Lolley

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