The Steelers have done a good job of filling holes this offseason, but finding no replacement for Javon Hargrave could prove to be costly
Entering into this offseason, the Steelers let NT Javon Hargrave enter free agency, and to no one’s surprise, he signed a sizable deal with the Eagles. With the gaping hole in the middle of the defense, the Steelers opted to… do nothing. No free agents were brought in and the only draft investment was a 7th round pick in Carlos Davis. With no real prospect added, the Steelers are likely turning to veteran backup Daniel McCullers.
For many a fan, the idea of McCullers manning the middle sends shivers down their spine. This 6’7 350-pound beast of a man has contributed very sparingly over the early parts of his career. It seems unlikely that in his seventh year he finally turns it on and becomes a consistent starter. Yet the Steelers seem to be banking on it since he has little competition for his starting spot.
To his credit, McCullers has improved
Ever since Karl Dunbar took over, McCullers has become a more consistent and all-around better player. Has that turned into a starter, no, but he is an adequate backup who can rotate in every once in a while. He is good for 100-150 snaps. That maximizes his talent and ensures that he doesn’t get too exposed.
While he isn’t horrible, his play isn’t at the level that Hargrave’s was at. With his size, he tends to pop up too fast and lose leverage. This results in him being blocked out of the play on both running and passing plays. His biggest strength is his strength, as he can sometimes bully lineman back with little technique and help collapse the pocket.
The issue is, this can work for a play here and a play there. You throw McCullers in halfway through a drive completely fresh, he can outmuscle a tired lineman. When he is the primary starter though, his lack of technique will get exposed. He won’t be the fresh body subbing in anymore, instead of being the starting NT who no longer has the freshness advantage.
As well, McCullers has almost no pass rushing plan. The Steelers built a potent DL behind the talent of their DE’s and the versatility of Hargrave in the middle. The Steelers are already losing this, and it won’t be replaced with McCullers.
What’s more than likely is McCullers becomes the primary starter in base defense while a player like Tyson Alualu or Isaiah Buggs subs in during passing packages. While this means his pass rush plan is less important, it still means he should see close to 300 snaps this year.
While the Steelers did invest a 7th round pick in Carlos Davis and added an intriguing UDFA in Josiah Coatney, neither can be depended on to become a starter this early in their career. Their first obstacle will be to make the roster. Even if they do, considering the strained state of the NFL through this pandemic, going from late-round/UDFA rookie to starter in one year is a tall task.
Now, some would argue that having a mediocre starter at a position that doesn’t play even half the time isn’t a big deal. While valid, it is important to remember that the Steelers play in the AFC North. The Ravens are coming off a historic rushing season and have only added to their attack. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt form a talented duo in Cleveland. As well, Joe Mixon isn’t a slouch either.
The Steelers are in a run-heavy division, meaning they need to make sure their base defense isn’t suspect. Imagine lining up against the Ravens with McCullers trying to clog the middle; a good coach will scheme to the weakness of a team and that weakness right now lies in the middle.
While the Steelers could fill their NT void with a free agent, the team seems content to go into training camp with what they have. While the Steelers could add a player via trade or during roster cutdowns, that is no sure thing. As of now, the most realistic scenario is the Steelers roll with McCullers as their base defense starter.
While the defense should still be a strength going into next year, there is a gaping hole in the middle. The Steelers haven’t adequately replaced Hargrave and seem content rolling with what they have this year. In a run-heavy division, this could lead to some lost games in vital situations. While the Steelers should still be good, this weakness isn’t one to overlook.