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Steelers could turn to tackle-heavy draft to retool protection for Ben Roethlisberger

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PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger is back, but in a week, at least one of the men who protected him the past six seasons likely won't be.

Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, 32, will hit free agency when the league year opens on Wednesday, and the Steelers didn't give him a new contract to keep him from entering the open market. His play -- along with the rest of the offensive line's -- dropped last season. That, coupled with the tight salary cap, paves the way for a youth movement within the often veteran unit.

Rebuilding that unit in the wake of Villanueva's likely departure and Maurkice Pouncey's retirement is a priority -- especially after a season in which the run game crumbled and Roethlisberger was forced to get the ball out of his hands quickly before the pocket collapsed.

"Al [Villanueva] is a free agent, Matt Feiler is a free agent, Maurkice has retired, Zach Banner is coming off an ACL, so it is an uncertain group that we have up front," general manager Kevin Colbert said last month. "Again, I don't know where the free-agency part will go for both Matt and Al. We know Maurkice won't be back with us. How that comes together, it will be ongoing."

With the salary-cap drop to $182.5 million, the Steelers will be one of the many teams looking to fortify their offensive line with inexpensive yet NFL-ready tackles. The way Colbert sees it, now is a good time to be a tackle-needy team.

"The draft itself, it is stronger at the tackle position than it is at the interior," Colbert said. "Center and guard, traditionally, is not a very strong group. In any draft, the tackles are unusually deep this year. I think we can add players through the draft. Hopefully, we will be able to do some type of business in free agency. And we are always going to look at our own players first."

ESPN NFL draft analyst Matt Miller agrees.

"In my top 50 overall, I have seven tackles," Miller said. "So it is really deep. ... There are several tackles who will go 33-45 probably who could be starters in the NFL. They might have one part of their game that needs to get cleaned up a little bit."

The Steelers have a late-round pick in each of the first two rounds of the NFL draft. At No. 24 overall, the best offensive tackles in the class -- Oregon's Penei Sewell, USC's Alijah Vera-Tucker and Northwestern's Rashawn Slater -- will likely be off the board.

The next tier, though, still possesses plenty of NFL-ready tackles.

Virginia Tech's Christian Darrisaw and Oklahoma State's Teven Jenkins are among those in the second group.

"Teven Jenkins from Oklahoma State is a really good player," Miller said. "I spoke to him last week. He feels like he could be a Day 1 right tackle."

Chukwuma Okorafor, who started nearly every game at right tackle last season, is slated to return to the Steelers in the last year of his contract. But if the team re-signs Banner, there could be a positional battle there, or one could move to left tackle and the other could compete for the starting right tackle spot with a newly drafted player.

The Steelers could also take North Dakota State's Dillon Radunz. He missed out on a fall season because the FCS moved football to the spring, but he was named a first-team All-American in 2019 as a junior. To ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., Radunz moved into contention to be an early round draft pick with a strong showing at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.

"Dillon's got a lot of ability," Kiper said. "He's a plug-and-play left tackle. He was a shot putter in high school, all-conference basketball player. He's got the length. I think he's a guy to think about there now."

Cincinnati's James Hudson is also another option in the second round. An under-the-radar prospect who has just one year as a starter under his belt, he could be an eventual starting left tackle.

"He's a phenomenal player," Miller said. "Very, very good athlete. He's someone, early-to-mid second round who comes off the board."

Samuel Cosmi from Texas, a versatile player who allowed just one quarterback hit last season, also fits the bill as a borderline first- or second-round offensive tackle.

"He's mean, he's tough in the run game," Miller said. "He's just got to get a little more patient in the pass game."

Said Texas DL/LB Joseph Ossai: "I'm sad the combine wasn’t a thing this year because people would have seen how freakish and explosive [Cosmi] is."

If the Steelers miss out on any of those prospects in the early rounds, or want to pad their depth even more, there are also options like Jackson Carman from Clemson. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Matt Canada were at Clemson's pro day on Thursday, though Carman did not work out.

Carman spent the last two years of his collegiate career as Trevor Lawrence's left tackle. After Clemson's pro day, he said NFL teams were evaluating him as a left tackle, but they also talked with him about his capabilities as a guard. With that versatility, Carman could be a solid mid-round addition for depth.