Okobi remains with Steelers

The Steelers locked up their center of the future by signing restricted free agent Chukky Okobi to a four-year deal worth $6 million, including a $700,000 signing bonus.

The 25-year-old Okobi will earn the NFL minimum this season, thus saving the Steelers money on the salary cap. He had been offered a qualifying offer of $628,000 by the Steelers and will count slightly less than that this season, adding in his pro-rated signing bonus.

A fifth-round draft choice in 2001, Okobi has appeared in 30 games for the Steelers, starting five in place of veteran Jeff Hartings.

And with the 31-year-old Hartings likely to be playing his final season with the Steelers, the team wanted to retain Okobi as a replacement.

That's why Okobi's salary will escalate in future seasons since it is assumed he will be the starter.

One thing that could throw a monkey wrench into those plans is the status of 2002 first-round draft choice Kendall Simmons. Simmons struggled in 2003 with an elbow injury and diabetes that caused his weight to fluctuate.

Simmons, the team's starting right guard the past two seasons, had elbow surgery soon after the season ended and the team doesn't feel that will be a long-term problem.

But if Simmons is not able to keep his weight over 300 pounds because of the diet he must stay on to control his diabetes, the team may feel the need to move him to center, since that position doesn't do as much one-on-one blocking.

Okobi's contract is the first given out this offseason to an offensive lineman, a position the team wanted to address.

Backup tackle Mathias Nkwenti and backup guard Keydrick Vincent are also restricted free agents and could receive offers from other teams that the Steelers would have the right to match.

Nkwenti would bring a fourth-round pick in return for the Steelers, while Vincent, who made the team as an undrafted rookie, would require no compensation.

But the Steelers are eyeing selecting an offensive tackle in the first two rounds of next month's draft. They would like to acquire a player capable of plugging into their right tackle position that was shared by journeymen Oliver Ross and Todd Fordham last season.

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