Free Agency 2003: Part VI - Offensive Tackle

The 2002 season was not a great one for the Steelers' offensive line. While left guard Alan Faneca made the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive season, his play was not as good as it had been in the previous year. Center Jeff Hartings, a Pro Bowl alternate in 2001, missed large portions of 2002 with a knee injury that limited his play even when he was on the field.

Considering a scout told me in training camp that the Steelers' rushing attack revolves around the play of Faneca and Hartings, it was not a good year for the team's running game. But with the team now utilizing a passing attack with immobile quarterback Tommy Maddox pulling the trigger, the emphasis now, more than ever, is on pass protection.

The Steelers are set at center, with Chukky Okobi showing he's more than capable of filling in for Hartings, and at guard, where youngsters Kendall Simmons and Keydrick Vincent are up-and-coming players.

But with left tackle Wayne Gandy hitting unrestricted free agency at the end of February, the Steelers have a gaping hole at that position.

They have several options from which to solidify it. The Steelers could make a pitch to bring Gandy back for another couple of seasons, but he is likely to get a bigger offer from another team and won't be back in 2003.

The second option will be letting Oliver Ross and Mathias Nkwenti battle it out in training camp for the spot.

Ross, a former practice squad player, has played reasonably well at tackle when asked to play that position and is better suited to play there than he is guard, where he failed miserably in 2002.

Nkwenti, meanwhile, is a 2001 fourth-round draft choice who has yet to make any significant impact. Yet talent evaluators I have spoken to have said that Nkwenti has all of the physical tools to be a stud left tackle in the league. But Nkwenti, who played on the defensive line for much of his collegiate career, lacks experience.

If Ross or Nkwenti don't pan out at left tackle, the Steelers could slide right tackle Marvel Smith over - he was a left tackle in college - and place Ross at the less demanding right tackle position.

Or, the Steelers could simply go the free agent route. But buyer beware, shopping for a tackle on the free agent market is going to be costly.

There are two stud left tackles available as unrestricted free agents in Pro Bowlers Orlando Pace of St. Louis and Walter Jones of Seattle. However St. Louis has already designated Pace its franchise player, while Seattle tagged Jones last season and is likely to do so again this year.

That will push either of those two players right off the market for any team not willing to part with two first round draft picks and a boatload of money. Count the Steelers among that group. Two less costly options - not including Gandy - are the Giants' Luke Petigout and Dallas' Flozell Adams.

Petigout is a 6-6, 315-pounder who is solid in pass protection and has been a key player in the Giants' rushing attack. But New York may give him the franchise or transition tag to keep other teams from making a run at him.

The 6-7, 335-pound Adams, meanwhile, is said to be a top priority for the Cowboys to bring back. But Dallas has never put a premium on offensive linemen - when the Cowboys took Adams in the first round of the 1999 draft, it was the first time they had taken one in the first round since 1981.

That may change under new head coach Bill Parcells, but owner Jerry Jones may not want to break the bank for a mid-level player like Adams.

If the Steelers would choose to sign a right tackle instead of a left and move Smith over, Houston's Ryan Young would be the player to target.

The 6-5, 320-pound Young was one of the first players the Texans picked in the expansion draft last year, but the former Jets right tackle suffered through groin and knee injuries for much of the season.

He's still a young player with a lot of upside potential who could give the Steelers an excellent young offensive line.

Two other options would be Dallas' Solomon Page, a 6-4, 321-pounder, or Tampa Bay veteran Roman Oben (6-4, 305). While neither Page or Oben are top-notch players, they could battle Ross for the starting position and give the Steelers some added flexibility.

Dale Lolley

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