If indeed it takes one to know one, Casey Hampton likes what he sees in Trai Essex.
And there is a lot to see.
"He's got a bad body, man," said Hampton, the 6-foot-1, 330-plus-pound nose tackle. "But that ain't got nothing to do with it. He's good and he's athletic. It just don't look like it."
Hampton's body isn't exactly sculpted for a magazine cover, not with the way his frame tends to waddle on the field. But, for nine NFL seasons, opposing linemen have always been amazed at how well he moves and how difficult he is to block in the middle of the defensive line.
And so it is with Essex and his football prowess.
His physique will not find its way onto any fitness video, even though he reported to training camp 15 pounds lighter than last season. And, at 6 feet 4, 324 pounds, he is not exactly as streamlined as backup left tackle Tony Hills.
But the Steelers are not concerned about how Essex, a third-round draft choice in 2005, looks. Rather, they are only concerned about how he plays at right guard. And, right now, it is well enough that Darnell Stapleton, the player he is replacing, might not reclaim his starting spot.
"He can play," said Hampton, who will line up across from Essex in practice. "He's definitely going to help out this line a lot."
"He's got some size to him," said offensive line coach Larry Zierlein. "We play against big guys in this league, big nose guards where you're doubling with the center, and you have to lay on those guys pretty heavy. But he's a pretty good athlete. He's more athletic than he's given credit for."
Essex, a backup left tackle, was signed to a two-year, $2 million contract in the offseason with the promise that he would be given a chance to compete with Stapleton for the starting right-guard position. But Essex has held that position almost since the beginning of training camp because Stapleton developed fluid on his left knee and eventually had arthroscopic surgery. Stapleton is expected to miss two more weeks.
Nobody has noticed a difference.
Not only does Essex look more comfortable at guard than he did at left tackle, but he also has adapted to his new spot somewhat seamlessly.
Zierlein said Essex graded "very well" in the preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals. And, coincidence or not, the Steelers ran all seven plays in Sunday's goal-line drill to the right side, behind Essex and right tackle Willie Colon. Rookie Isaac Redman scored on five of the seven runs.
"He's one of those guys you feel comfortable when they say Trai is coming into the game because he's an intelligent guy and he's a tough guy," said left tackle Max Starks, who knows all about being moved around on the offensive line. "You want to have that at any position you put a guy in on the offensive line."
Essex, who majored in African-American studies at Northwestern, does not have problems with his assignments. He is just trying to become accustomed to moving from the left side of the line of scrimmage to the right.
"His intelligence speaks to the fact he can switch sides," Starks said. "He can switch his stance and perform effectively at either position. That's a key and one of the things you never want to take for granted -- that you have a guy who's versatile enough, who knows the offense that well, that he can switch around to different positions and be just as effective."
Said Zierlein: "The mental part is not the problem. The physical part is just being on a different side. He's a bright guy. He understands things, he understands concepts."
Essex is accustomed to performing with the first-team offense. He has played in 33 games in four seasons, starting four at left tackle. But his first start his rookie season was in Baltimore against the Ravens' attacking defense. The following week, after Marvel Smith attempted to play against the Indianapolis Colts and exited after one series, Essex had to face Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney in the RCA Dome -- a performance in which Essex acquitted himself rather well, given the difficult nature of the assignment.
Asked if the right guard spot is Essex's to lose, Zierlein said, "I think so. He's taken every snap over there."
Even if Essex doesn't quite look the part.