Skip to main content

Okobi will be mad if he's not next Steelers center

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Webster was chosen for nine Pro Bowls at this position for the Steelers. Dermontti Dawson made it for seven. Jeff Hartings was an All-Pro there. Chukky Okobi understands what being Pittsburgh's starting center means, not only in the past but now.

That's why he will be so disappointed -- no, make that angry -- if he isn't.

Right now, he figures to be upset when new coach Mike Tomlin finally reveals who the Steelers' starting offensive linemen will be, something he hasn't done so far in the preseason. Tomlin is planning to wait until after Thursday night's exhibition game against Carolina to reveal his starters.

"I started camp as No. 1 ... but, right now, it seems to be the same (backup) role I've had," Okobi said Tuesday. "I've worked really hard this offseason -- look at me, I think I look pretty good -- but whatever happens, happens."

Okobi expected this was finally the year he would start, after Hartings retired following six seasons with Pittsburgh. The Steelers kept Okobi around for all of those seasons as a backup and gave him a $10 million contract several years ago -- big money for someone with only six career starts.

While Okobi is scheduled to make $2 million this season, the kind of money that's normally paid only to a starter, Okobi is currently running behind Sean Mahan at center. Mahan, a guard-center who started for Tampa Bay when Tomlin was an assistant there, signed a five-year contract during the offseason that included a $4 million signing bonus and thus is certain to make the team.

Okobi opened training camp No. 1 on the depth chart, but Mahan began running ahead of him when Okobi missed time with a rib injury and has remained with the starters.

Though Tomlin hasn't confirmed it, there is every sign that Mahan, left tackle Marvel Smith, left guard Alan Faneca, right guard Kendall Simmons and right tackle Willie Colon will be the starters Sept. 9 in Cleveland. Colon has been practicing ahead of two-year starter Max Starks the last couple of weeks.

That unit started Sunday night's preseason game against Philadelphia and will start again Thursday night at Carolina.

"I missed a bunch of days with an injury and obviously it didn't help my cause any, but I think when I've been in there I've played really, really well," Okobi said. "I've done everything I can to control the situation."

Okobi doesn't have a good feel for the situation because the Steelers also have a new offensive line coach, with Larry Zierlein taking over from Russ Grimm, and offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, who replaced Ken Whisenhunt.

"I'm still in the process of getting to know these guys," Okobi said. "You've got to ask them. Maybe if it was Russ and these guys, I might have an answer. I really don't know what goes on in their staff meetings."

There's also this scenario: Rather than keeping Okobi as a backup if he doesn't start, the Steelers release him and keep Marvin Philip, a sixth-round pick a year ago, as a backup guard-center. Philip has been working at both positions, so it could happen -- not many NFL teams can afford to keep three centers.

"This is the NFL and you're trying to get the best 53, and I'm definitely in the top 53 of the guys in this locker room," said Okobi, who is likely to find a job quickly if he's cut. "I'm just going to do what I do and I do it well, that's what kept me in this league, this locker room this long."

But if he's gone this time a week from now ...

"Once one door closes, another one opens," he said. "If I'm not on this roster I think it would be an injustice, but that's what it is, a business. It's a business."

Meanwhile, Faneca, the five-time All-Pro who is unsigned past this season, said there has been no movement by the Steelers toward offering him a new contract. The two sides have not talked for months, and Faneca promised in May this would be his last season in Pittsburgh.

"No, nothing going on in that area," he said. "It's status quo."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.