Weighing in on the offensive line

This is the next in a series previewing the Steelers training camp. Today: The offensive line

Is it possible the Steelers offensive line might actually be better than it was last season when the team led the league in rushing by more than 30 yards per game?

Possibly.

Pending the outcome of Marvel's Smith's drug arrest last week, four and a half of last year's five starters return on the offensive line, with right guard Rich Tylski having been a salary cap casualty.

But the Steelers feel they have more than enough options to replace Tylski in Oliver Ross, first-round pick Kendall Simmons, Keydrick Vincent.

Heading into camp, the job is Ross' to lose. A surprise addition to the team's final roster after spending half of 2000 on the Steelers' practice squad, Ross turned an opportunity into a three-year, $4.55 million contract.

Because of injuries, Ross started one game at left tackle and six at right guard. He played well enough for Cleveland to offer the restricted free agent that the Steelers matched.

The Steelers feel they got a steal late in the first round in Simmons.

The former Auburn star has great footwork, excellent strength and played at a high level in the extremely tough SEC. He hasn't played guard, however, in three years and may take some time to adjust.

Vincent , meanwhile, remains a darkhorse in the race.

Vincent, who made the roster as a rookie free agent, started one game and played extensively in another. The team likes his aggressiveness and footwork.

Tackles Wayne Gandy, Smith, left guard Alan Faneca and center Jeff Hartings are all solid in their positions, with Faneca and Hartings being among the best in the league at their positions.

If Smith, who improved as the season wore on last year before a meltdown in the AFC Championship Game, gets a suspension for his arrrest in Tempe, Ariz., last week on marijuana possession charges, Ross would likely shift over to right tackle with Simmons or Nkwenti starting at right guard.

Ross has supplanted Mathias Nkwenti, a fourth-round pick in 2001, as the team's eventual replacement for Gandy at left tackle. Nkwenti will probably get one more season to learn before the team makes a final decision about his future.

Chukky Okobi, a fifth-round pick in 2001, spent most of last season on scholarship. With Roger Duffy's departure, he is the team's primary backup center and is also in the mix as a backup guard.

Tackles Josh Burr, Leon Brockmeier and Jermese Jones, and centers Matt Anderson and McAllister Collins are likely nothing more than camp fodder. They can take heart in the fact that Ross and Vincent both made the team last season after entering camp with little fanfare.


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