Woods might be pressed into duty this season if injuries strike. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line Depth Huge Question Mark For Steelers


I was not surprised when I read the news that Pittsburgh’s coaching staff worked out Al Woods at all three defensive line positions during the team’s OTA sessions.  Teams can never have too much depth in the trenches, and the Steelers could very well need a “jack-of-all-trades” backup in place to assist if injuries or poor-play strike the team’s four-man rotation of Brett Keisel, Cameron Heyward, Ziggy Hood and Steve McLendon this fall.  I just hope that the soon-to-be fourth-year player (23 career games, 0.5 sack) can prove himself worthy of extended backup duty soon, especially because the rest of Pittsburgh’s reserves along their defensive line are so raw and inexperienced.

 

Defensive End

In the seventh round of this April’s draft, Pittsburgh selected the raw and untested Nick Williams out of Samford.  Williams, who was focused more on basketball in high school (he only played one year of football), has the size (6’4″ 309 lbs., 34.125″ arms, 10.25″ hands) and athletic tools to be a terrific five-technique some day.  Yet as high as the potential ceiling could be for the former Samford star, he is still only playing his fifth year of football.  Moreover, he will also have to transition to the defensive end position in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme after he played defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme at the collegiate level.

After the draft ended, Colbert & Co. also added some competition for Williams in the forms of UDFAs Brian Arnfelt of Northwestern and Cordian Hagans of Louisiana-Lafayette.  After three seasons of spot-duty, Arnfelt (6’5″ 302 lbs.) finally came on strong during his senior year when he played full-time (25 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks).  Like the other backups, the former defensive tackle has some underrated athletic ability (40-time: 4.83 seconds and 225 lbs. bench press: 38 reps), but still will require more development before he sees the field.

Hagans (6’4″ 299 lbs.) actually started his collegiate career on the offensive side of the ball at L.S.U..  In fact, he only began to play defense full time after he transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette three years ago.  Much like Arnfelt, Hagans also had a breakout season of sorts as a senior (41 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks) when he was finally able to start full-time.  And much like Williams, Hagans will have to get used to a new position in Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme.

While I am definitely intrigued to see how Williams, Arnfelt and Hagans develop over the next year, all three of them will likely be fighting for practice squad spots during the preseason due to their inexperience and still-developing skill-sets.  Thankfully, the quintet Hood, Heyward, Keisel and Woods will be in front of them on the depth chart and the likelihood of them seeing the field is much less than the backups at nose tackle.

 

Nose Tackle

I for one am very intrigued to see how McLendon performs during his first year as a starter.  After three full seasons of learning under Casey Hampton, Hoke and his position coach Mitchell, the time will be “now” for McLendon to prove himself and become the anchor along Pittsburgh’s defensive line.

The Steelers are banking on McLendon stay injury-free this year though, because the players behind him on the depth chart possess almost zero professional experience whatsoever.  Second-year tackles Alameda Ta’amu and Hebron Fangupo played zero significant snaps last fall, and neither player recorded a single statistic during their rookie campaigns.  With their futures still uncertain, the door could be open for Woods or 2013 UDFA Omar Hunter to slide in and bump them down on the depth chart very soon.

Hunter is an interesting prospect, especially because he gained a large amount of experience (31 career starts) as a gap-clogger in the S.E.C. for the Florida Gators.  The squat-framed Hunter (6′ 313 lbs.) could earn himself a practice squad spot if he plays effective during the preseason and can anchor himself well against larger and more athletic pro linemen.

Hope for Hunter aside, the lack of experienced depth behind McLendon is a major cause for concern.  It is absolutely imperative that McLendon stays on the field as often as possible, because I have little faith that Ta’amu, Fangupo, Hunter (and possibly even Woods) will be able to play effectively this fall and record a significant amount of snaps as early as this fall.

 

Final Thoughts

Look, I understand that the Steelers have what appears to be a serviceable “four-man rotation” in place heading into this fall.  But when the 2013 campaign ends and the spring of 2014 rolls around, the aforementioned “four-man rotation” could be cut in half.

Keisel and Hood are both entering the final years of their respective contracts this year.  If the Steelers need to save cap-space, both might even be allowed to walk next spring.  Complicating matters is the fact that Heyward will reach UFA-status in the spring of 2015 as well.  Thus, if the former Buckeye’s development stagnates or he simply does not live up to his 1st Round pick status like Hood has failed to do as well, he might not be re-signed in the spring of 2015 when his rookie deal expires.

I know that the 2014 season is still a distant thought to most people.  Moreover, I have faith that defensive line coach Mitchell can develop at least one of the young and unheralded defensive ends into an effective player down the road.  I simply hope that Pittsburgh’s defensive line can stay injury-free this fall, because the lack of experienced depth in the defensive trenches is a problem which must be addressed.

 

 

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Stats Provided By: Florida, Louisiana-Lafayette, Northwestern, Samford and ESPN.com

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Tags: 2013 Offseason Defensive End Nose Tackles Pittsburgh Steelers

  • Adam Banig

    You know, I was just thinking of this today… Just like you. I thought, the steelers top 4 is pretty good but after that, who do they have?

    I think Woods, Ta’amu and Fangupo will prove to eventually be good depth players but established depth is currently lacking in Pittsburgh.

    The good news, is that there are till some talented free agents out there like Israel Idonije, Seymour and Sedric Ellis.

    Then, some teams have goos depth at DL and there are sure to be a few decent depth players cut. Take the Redskins for example:

    They have Kedric Golston, Ron Brace, Phillip Merling, ChrisBaker, Doug Worthington and Chris Neild all competing for 2 or 3 spots behind the top 4 of Bowen, Cofield, Carriker and Jenkins. It’s pretty clear 3 or 4 of the Redskins players will be available for the Steelers to sign when the Redskins cut them. The other great news is the teams play the same defense. If I had to make my guess:

    Brace, Merling and Doug Worthington won’t make the Redskins and I’d take any of the 3 or all of them over the young unknown guys mentioned in this article.

    • Dom DiTolla

      The Steelers won’t sign any of those veterans with their lack of cap space and their projected price tags. They’d bring back “Big Snack” long before any of them as a more cost-effective & scheme-knowledgeable option.

      They’ll likely bank of their four-man rotation staying healthy and that either Ta’amu, Fangupo or Woods can win a full-time roster-spot outright as the rookies duke it out for two spots on the practice squad.

      In his post-draft press conference John Mitchell seemed really excited to work with and develop Nick Williams, and his progress should definitely be something to monitor over the next two years.

      I’m sure that Colbert & Co. will keep their eyes peeled for some developmental “diamonds in the rough” once the final 53-man cuts come at the end of the preseason. I’m more worried about what will happen if Hood & Keisel aren’t re-signed after this season and Heyward can’t pan out into an effective starter.

      • Adam Banig

        While I agree Seymour might not be a target because of price and the Steelers don’t need any starters on the DL, depth is the concern and all the other players I listed but Seymour will be cheaper than Big Snack. Especially those who would be the redskins cast offs which would be the most likely signings.

        As to the other point on Keisel and Hood being up, I see Keisel being gone (likely retired) and Hood being re-signed. They’ll probably draft another DL in the mid rounds to develop behind Hood and Heyward in 2014.

        • Dom DiTolla

          Unless injuries strike, I think the Steelers and Mitchell will ride this season out with the personnel they have as they hope that one or two of the youngsters can develop.

          Remember, Merling was a complete bust in Miami, Worthington couldn’t stick around in Pittsburgh during his first stint and has not caught on anywhere else (much like Baker), Brace couldn’t stay healthy or beat out Wilfork or Love to stay in New England, and the injury-prone Golston was just recently signed to a three-year deal.

          Also, Idonije is a 4-3 defensive end and Sedrick Ellis has met with a number of 4-3 teams over the last week. Both might be able to transition to Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme (Idonije at DE & Ellis at NT), but the veterans could ultimately be out of Pittsburgh’s price-range for backup roles once injuries strike other clubs along their defensive lines during the offseason period.

          The issue with depth will not be as evident this year as it will be over the next two so they can afford to be patient and look within for their own options instead of being overly active once the final cutdowns arrive.

          • Adam Banig

            Depth could be a problem if one of their top 4 goes down.

            I’m not sure if you know it or not but Golston isn’t injury prone. He’s missed 14 games in a possible 112 in his 7 year career. 7 of which were in 2011 when he tore his acl in week 9.

            Baker made he Redskins team last year as Berry Cofield’s back up and played well in spot duty.

            Merling is an interesting case. I don’t think he was a bust (he just got injured) Merling was starting to play better for the Dolphins when he tore his achillies. Merling was a 4-3 DE out of Clemson, so he had to learn a new position in Miami. He was starting to get down the 3-4 DE position but then he tore his achillies. It remains to be seen this summer what he has.

            So Ron Brace couldn’t beat out one all pro NT and a good DT next to him and that means he can’t be depth?

            I think Brace is the same as the Merling case. No one knows right now but it will be watched his summer.

            Chris Neild and Doug Worthington have seen some playing time while in Washington. Neild has shown more than Worthington but Neild tore his ACL last training camp.

            I agree with what you said about Idonije and Ellis, I was just saying they’re out there if need be. I’d see Idonije as a pass rush specialist, not an every down De.

            I guess I just see these udfa’s as practice squad players for a year or 2 before they make the team as one of the final DL.

            I see what you’re saying with Depth, but I think the team re-signs hood next offseason and drafts a DE in rounds 2 through 4 to be a reserve and develop for the future.

          • Dom DiTolla

            I’m all for the Steelers dragnetting the final preseason cuts-market if Williams, Arnfelt and Hagans aren’t deemed practice squad/53 man-roster worthy.

            But wouldn’t the “best” or most promising of that aforementioned group make the Redskins roster as backups?

            Golston would be a great depth pickup I would like if he stayed healthy, but Washington could very well keep him for that very reason if Neild doesn’t return like they want him to off of his knee injury.

            And if Baker has caught on as Cofield’s primary backup, why would Washington let him go instead of developing him over some of the underwhelming veterans you mentioned?

            Wouldn’t the Packers have given Merling another chance if he had something left in the tank for backup reasons? Both Miami and Green Bay were quick to get rid of him, and the 2008 2nd round pick had the 2011 season to come back from his Achilles injury.

            Plus, wouldn’t the Pats have kept Brace around for the post-Wilfork era simply for depth purposes and insurance? He apparently had issues grasping the playbook and missed 26 games over his career.

            I guess what I’m trying to say is that wouldn’t the Steelers brass, most notably Mitchell, be more comfortable with the guys that they know and have drafted/acquired over the potential left-overs from a group like the one you just mentioned?

            Plus, there could very be some better and possibly cheaper options for them to choose from elsewhere around the league once the post-preseason cuts-market is open for business.

            (Also, I hope that if the team signs Hood that Colbert & Co. already have Pouncey & C. Allen locked up long-term. There is no way that they should sign an underachieving defensive end before they can sign their 3x Pro Bowl center and promising #2 cornerback.)

  • Adam Banig

    Dom-

    I agree wit your last post. All I’m
    Saying is that there is a chance Golston gets beat out, there’s a chance Neild beats out Baker or the Redskins don’t keep 3 NTs. There is a chance that Merling and Brace are better than the undrafted free agents the Steelers have.

    All I’m saying is there’s a chance.

    It seemed before you were just shooting down Merling, Brace and is there’s a chance for them