For the second year in a row, the Pittsburgh Steelers will begin offseason workouts next month not certain about the identity of their starting center.
Unlike 2021, it won’t be because of a shortage of veteran options.
Thanks to the organization’s efforts in free agency, there will be candidates aplenty this spring. Two of the five players signed from outside the organization are capable of starting in the pivot.
Mason Cole, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings, was signed to a three-year, $15.75 million deal. James Daniels, who spent his first four seasons with the Chicago Bears, got an even bigger deal: three years for $26.5 million.
Both players have NFL starting experience at center as well as both guard positions.
Contrast that experience to last spring following Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement. The Steelers brought back journeyman interior lineman BJ Finney and retained an unproven JC Hassenauer before they drafted Kendrick Green, a college guard, to play center.
Green eventually won the starting job, but an injury led to Hassenauer starting the final two games of the regular season and the playoff loss at Kansas City.
Green’s inconsistent play while healthy led the Steelers to contemplate his shift to guard in 2022. Based on the Cole and Daniels signings, the Steelers were looking for an upgrade at center. They also solved the vacancy at right guard, which Trai Turner occupied last year, and provided competition at left guard following an injury-shortened year by Kevin Dotson.
The question is, which player will play where in the Steelers lineup in 2022?
“If I had the choice, I’d pick center, but I’m confident about all three interior positions,” Cole said. “Whatever they need me to do, that’s what I’m here for. I’ve got a job to do. I’m here to perform to the best of my ability at any of the three.”
Daniels is taking a similar approach to his future spot on the offensive line.
“The position is still in talks,” Daniels said. “I’m not sure about which position I’d be in for sure. I’m just excited to be here. Whatever position I can do, I have experience at all three, and I’m comfortable at all three.”
A third-round draft pick by Arizona in 2018, Cole started 16 games at center in his rookie season. He lost his starting job in 2019 and made his only two starts of the year at left guard. The next season, he returned to center and made 14 starts. A trade last March sent Cole to Minnesota, where he had four starts at center and three at right guard.
Cole was at right guard when the Vikings rushed for 242 yards against the Steelers.
“I’ve never cared where I’ve played,” Cole said. “Whatever I can do to help the team and bring the Lombardi Trophy here to the City of Pittsburgh (is my goal). Whatever that role is, I’m all for it.”
A second-round pick by Chicago in 2018, Daniels started 48 of the 54 games he played in his four seasons with the Bears. Like Cole, he never settled into one spot on the line.
As a rookie, Daniels started exclusively at left guard. The next year he split his 16 starts equally between center and left guard. Injuries limited Daniels to five starts in 2020, and they all came at left guard. Then, the Bears shifted Daniels to right guard last season, a position he played while starting all 17 games.
Given the financial commitment made to each player — Daniels got a $8.7 million signing bonus and Cole is expected to make $11 million over the next two seasons — the Steelers didn’t sign them to sit on the bench.
The Steelers could enter next season with an offensive line included of Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle, Green or Dotson at left guard, Cole at center, Daniels at right guard and Chuks Okorafor, who got a three-year, $29.5 million deal to avoid free agency, at right tackle.
Cole, who turns 26 later this month, is the oldest of that group. Dotson is 25, Okorafor and Daniels are 24, and Green and Moore are 23.
“It’s exciting that we can grow together,” Daniels said. “We’ve all played a decent amount of football. … It helps that we get to know each other and grow with each other.”