Everyone knew the Steelers would be addressing the defensive line during the draft, but the only question was to what degree they would do so. Prior to the draft defensive end was the most apparent need with nose tackle being a distant second along the defensive front. While it would have come to no surprise if the Steelers would have drafted a young nose tackle to groom behind Casey Hampton, they didn\’t.
Hampton signed a new three-year contract last February and his play in 2010 was well above the line. He logged just over 500 snaps on defensive last season including the playoffs and only missed the one game against the Titans early in the season due to a hamstring injury suffered in week one against the Falcons. He showed no real signs of slowing down even though he will turn 34 in September.
Chris Hoke was again the back up Hampton at the nose tackle position last season and in addition, he rotated in at defensive end throughout the season due to attrition on the defensive line. Left defensive end Aaron Smith tore his biceps during the week 7 game against the Dolphins and never played another down for the rest of the season. In addition to Smith, right defensive end Brett Keisel missed 5 starts due to quad/hamstring issues. Hoke was there to pick up the slack in both instances and only missed the week 4 game against the Ravens due to an MCL sprain suffered in mop up duty against the Buccaneers a week earlier.
Like Hampton, Smith and Keisel, Hoke is over 30 years of age as he just turned 35 last month. He logged just over 260 snaps last season on defense for the Steelers including the playoffs and played well when inserted into the game. Hoke is currently an unrestricted free agent who almost certainly would love to end his career in Pittsburgh. Being as the Steelers did not address nose tackle in the draft it is looking even better for him to return for at least one more season in 2011.
The Steelers could and likely will sign an undrafted free agent nose tackle type as soon as free agency begins, but the longer the lockout rolls on, the more the deck is stacked against that player making the 53 man roster and he certainly would not have the versatility or experience that Hoke has in the Dick LeBeau 3-4 system. Versatility is usually the key for a player on the bottom end of the 53 man roster and Hoke has it. An undrafted free agent nose tackle at this point would seem almost certain to be destined for the practice squad out of training camp and that is just how the career of Hoke started in Pittsburgh.
Outside of his play on the field, Hoke is also model player and a great leader in the locker room. He has earned everything he has received since going undrafted out of BYU and is the consummate professional. He almost certainly will be open to helping out first round draft Cameron Heyward in his rookie season and in the further development of defensive end Ziggy Hood in addition.
Hoke deserves one more season in the black and gold and now looks almost certain to be re-signed once free agency opens. Hoke knows his role on the team and he plays it well. At the start of the offseason I thought Hoke may be a 50/50 proposition to return depending on what the Steelers did in the draft, but noted it would hard not seeing him return regardless. Now as we sit here almost one week after the draft, I would say it looks more like 90/10 he will be back. I hope he is and I hope the Steelers can send him out in style with yet another Super Bowl ring. Here is to the return of Hokie.