It's not always a smooth transition trying to find a quality replacement after a player retires. Maurkice Pouncey had arguably the worst season of his career in 2020 before electing to hang up his cleats for good. After losing the 9-time Pro Bowler to retirement, the Pittsburgh Steelers attempted to fill the void with third-round pick, Kendrick Green.
This plan obviously didn't work out. One year later, the Steelers signed Mason Cole in free agency. Cole proved to be an upgrade over Green, but the front office expressed quite a bit of interest in adding a center early in the 2023 NFL Draft. This ultimately didn't happen, as the value was too strong to pass up at other positions on Day 2.
Recently, Pro Football Focus ranked the top 32 centers in the NFL ahead of the 2023 season. Gordon McGuinness of PFF had Mason Cole as his 22nd-best center right now. Here's what he had to say:
""Cole struggled in Arizona in his first three seasons in the league but was pretty solid in his first season with the Steelers last year. His 67.1 PFF grade ranked 12th in the league among centers, though his 63.8 PFF pass-blocking grade was tied for 24th, so there is still a fair amount of improvement to be made.""- Gordon McGuinness, PFF
McGuinness doesn't sound convinced that Cole is the center of the future in Pittsburgh; nor should he be. While the Steelers can do far worse at the position (as we've all witnessed), Cole has proven to be just an average starter over his first five NFL seasons. At age 27, there's no reason to suddenly expect a major leap from him.
This doesn't mean that Pittsburgh can't get away with starting Cole. However, it's likely the team will look to replace him in the near future. After revamping the offensive line over the past two seasons, it appears that Broderick Jones, Isaac Seumalo, and James Daniels all have secure jobs. Cole and Chukwuma Okorafor, on the other, could potentially be replaced soon.
It's not out of the question that Cole could be a long-term starter. Stranger things have happened. Alejandro Villanueva, for instance, didn't even log a snap in an NFL game until the age of 27 after serving three tours in Afghanistan. This was in addition to being a wide receiver at Army and a former experiment at defensive end by the Eagles.
Still, it's unwise to count on Cole as anything more than a stop-gap starter who can help bridge the gap from Maurkice Pouncey to the next long-term option. Regardless of where Pro Football Focus has the Steelers center ranked, this should be an improved offensive line in Pittsburgh in 2023.