What was the Steelers' most unstable and unreliable unit the past two years might be their most stable and reliable heading into 2014.
The offensive line has a new coach, and they feel so good about their players they barely paid attention to that unit for a second consecutive draft.
"I think we can have a special group here," said Mike Munchak, their new coach who knows his way around offensive lines.
He and Bruce Matthews each started at guard for the Houston Oilers in the 1980s. Both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Munchak also coached the Oilers and Tennessee Titans offensive line for 14 seasons before Tennessee hired him as its head coach.
With the Steelers, he inherited a group with four high draft picks, and one that, at long last, began to stabilize over the second half of last season. Injuries, however, cost them two starting centers, including Maurkice Pouncey on the first series of the regular season with a torn ACL, but their starting five could be set for a change entering 2014.
"He's doing well," Munchak said of his three-time Pro Bowl center. "The biggest, probably hardest part for him is going to be relaxing and realizing we don't play until September."
The other four starters were durable last season. On the right side, tackle Marcus Gilbert and guard David DeCastro started every game. Left guard Ramon Foster started 15. Once he won the job at left tackle to start the fifth game, Kelvin Beachum missed just one start.
"People don't know how hard it is to just get plugged in and how much that affects the chemistry of the offensive line," Munchak said.
Many discovered that over the past several years with the Steelers when one lineman after another were knocked out via injury.
Barring more of that, the Steelers line should be stable. The only real competition might come at tackle where there are three players and two starting jobs. Mike Adams opened last season at left tackle, starting the first four games before they switched to Beachum.
The Steelers were happy with Beachum, their seventh-round draft choice in 2012 who is undersized but makes good use of technique and leverage. It is conceivable Adams could compete with Beachum at left tackle, but more likely the competition will come between him and Gilbert on the right side.
"He might be more comfortable with one or the other, but I think he feels that he could play either one," Munchak said of Adams. "He just wants a chance just like all of them. He wants to start and play whether it be right or left."
The Steelers added an offensive lineman in the draft - Vanderbilt's Wesley Johnson with their compensatory pick in the fifth round. He started 51 games for the SEC school, 39 at left tackle, 3 at right tackle, 2 at left guard and 7 at center.
"He is a guy we feel who can really play center, guard or tackle, depending on where we need him," Munchak said.
"With us having so many injuries, here's a guy that has an opportunity to fill in at those spots if we need him. You don't want what happened last year where you have a guy like Beachum that plays left tackle and also has to be your backup center."
As Munchak noted, the Steelers usually dress just seven offensive linemen for games, which leaves two backups. Versatility rules. They re-signed two veteran linemen who joined them last season. Guy Whimper can play guard and tackle and Cody Wallace can play guard and center.There was speculation they might re-sign Fernando Velasco, who started the next 11 games at center after Pouncey's injury before he, too, went on injured reserve with a ruptured achilles.
If the Steelers keep nine linemen, they could be their current starting five, plus Adams, Wallace, Whimper and Johnson.
Pouncey (2010) and DeCastro (2012) were first-round draft picks. Gilbert (2011) and Adams (2012) were second-round picks. Foster was undrafted. They did not draft an offensive lineman in 2013 and only Johnson this year.
They believe Munchak can help many of those young linemen improve their technique, which was not a strong point of Jack Bicknell Jr., who was fired after one season as line coach.
"I've followed them through college and know what type of players they are," Munchak said. "I'm excited to work with them."
Rookie camp update
The Steelers have a rookie camp roster of 52 players that includes 20 on tryout. One of those tryouts is Stanford defensive back Devon Carrington, whom they first announced had signed as an undrafted rookie.
The camp, which begins today and runs through Sunday, will have three quarterbacks: Cincinnati rookie Brendon Kay, signed Saturday after the draft, and two on tryouts - Mason Espinosa of Ohio Wesleyan and Terrance Owens of Toledo.
Of those signed, only rookies and certain first-year pros are eligible for this camp. Last year, linebacker Terence Garvin of West Virginia was invited to try out at the rookie camp, signed a contract afterward, made the 53-man roster and played in 15 games, mostly on special teams.