The Steelers have some needs to fill this offseason outside of the secondary and one could be nose tackle.
The Steelers are kicking the offseason … off at the moment. They’ve done a couple of small things but there’s work on the horizon. A lot of the Steelers core group is locked up until next year. So much of the discussion has been around a hole we’ve been stepping over for a couple years now, the secondary. But something on the table, a variable, is nose tackle.
Now the neglect of the nose tackle speculation is justified. With the secondary in need and now tight end, the offensive line could use some depth, it’s just lower on the priority list. The basic fact is this however, the nose tackle position is important to the Steelers defense and there is some need for depth and perhaps even a starter.
This is no disrespect to Steve McLendon. Let’s make that clear too. Steve McLendon seemed like a stopgap player when he first stepped in for Casey Hampton in 2013. He was a back up for a few years prior and an undrafted free agent before that. Early as a starter there was talk of finding a replacement, but as McLendon’s skill and size have grown that talk has quieted down.
McLendon is a fine starting nose tackle. He’s more effective in the pass rush than Hampton, which has helped the Steelers develop their new pass rushing D-line, and while it’s perhaps humanly impossible to be better at stopping the run McLendon has improved ever year at that part of his game. He’s the starting tackle on the 6th ranked run defense in the league after all.
The fact remains however that McLendon is a free agent this year. His backup, big Dan McCullers, though doing fine in limited action just doesn’t seem ready for a starting role. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that the Steelers met with McLendon’s representatives recently. But in the event of him leaving, the Steelers would need a new starter obviously.
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The Steelers are losing Cam Thomas as well. It’ll free up some nice cap space and Thomas got some fury from fans during his time, he did better this year though. But his versatility was an asset and his likely departure is both a defensive end and tackle essentially. Some additional depth would be nice.
Even if the Steelers keep McLendon he’s 30 years old. How much longer can he last? There’s currently no sign of wear. But his job as a Steelers nose tackle is to get hit by as many guys as possible every play. He does occasionally get injured and did this season already. So he’ll need a long term replacement.
Furthermore, even if all those looming variables go our way the Steelers are not really a one tackle team anymore. With Tomlin working in the cover 2 and the Steelers increasingly using nickle sets, the Steelers need more defensive tackles.
So, what’s out there? What are we keeping an eye out for?
Well the Steelers could pull from inside, maybe an LT Walton. But even he and McCullers and McLendon are just three guys. That might suffice for the season. But this will need to be addressed eventually and if it’s this offseason they’ll need to look to the draft or free agency.
The free agent market is decent when it comes to defensive tackle. BJ Raji could be an interesting addition. Haloti Ngata could be too but not at his current price tag. The Steelers are bargain shoppers this year. Ngata is also too old to be a long term help. Terrance Knighton could be available for a more reasonable price after a mediocre year in Washington. Ian Williams might also be worth a look if the 49ers lose him.
If not free agency, then the draft. The draft class for defensive tackle is pretty strong this year. The Steelers will have plenty of opportunities the first couple days to get a quality player. The cream of the crop is Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson, followed by Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins, Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler, and Alabama’s Jarran Reed. Andrew Billings of Baylor and Kenny Clark of UCLA are also possible.
Any of those players could reasonably be taken in the first round. It’s pretty deep this year. So even for a depth move or for the future it’s worth knowing what’s out there. Hassan Ridgeway of Texas and Austin Johnson of Penn State could be nice second day additions.
So when it comes to defensive tackle, there’s a lot of variables. And there’s also a lot of options to deal with those variables. Just a lot of moving pieces here folks. But the bottom line is, the Steelers should, and likely will have defensive tackle on their mind this offseason.