Earlier in the offseason, we took a position-by-position look at where the Pittsburgh Steelers stand with their roster before the free agency process both ravaged and replenished the talent pool.
The Steelers entered the process with 22 free agents. They re-signed six of them, while losing eight more to other teams, with eight remaining unsigned. They also added seven free agents from other teams.
With the roster picture now much clearer and draft needs much easier to determine, it’s time to revisit those positional draft charts to see which positions are areas of need come draft time.
The next position we’ll revisit will be defensive end. The position was hit hard in free agency, but it seemed the Steelers didn’t lose any pieces they weren’t willing to lose. Ziggy Hood was never an ideal starter. Al Woods was a good player to retain for depth, but the team preferred Cam Thomas’ experience for comparable salary. Brett Keisel remains in play as a free agent unlikely to draw outside attention.
Cameron Heyward: The former first-round pick finally broke out in his third season, emerging as one of the best players on a mediocre defense. After proving to be a positive force as a pass rusher in sub-packages over the first four games, all of which the Steelers lost, Mike Tomlin benched Hood in favor of Heyward.
As time went on, Heyward grew more and more into the starting position, becoming more adept to reading the nuances of the offense. I saw a number of times Heyward get beat on a stunt early in the game, only to watch him rebound the next time he saw it, combat it, and make the play. More than all that, however, is simply the determination and relentlessness with which he plays, which influences those around him.
Cam Thomas: Thomas played nose tackle primarily with his former team, but according to Kevin Colbert, the Steelers view him as a defensive end, so until we hear or see otherwise, that’s what he’ll be. While he may be a bit heavier and wider than the average end, he’s more agile than he is strong, which was part of his struggles at nose. No doubt he’ll be asked to play some nose as well during the season, as Woods did. He should be a more than capable rotational player, and perhaps could start if need be.
Brian Arnfelt: An undrafted rookie free agent last season, Brian Arnfelt spent most of the offseason practicing as the second-team left defensive end while Woods was being trained to play nose. He and Woods received the most playing time during the preseason, and Arnfelt certainly made the most of his time. I saw him play very well, all things considered, showing both awareness and technique, and I fully expect him to be part of the defensive line rotation this year. He’s already achieved the hard part of making the roster.
Nick Williams: The Steelers are not averse to taking late-round flyers on defensive end prospects, but they’re hoping that Nick Williams is closer to Keisel than Ra’Shon Harris or Doug Worthington. A very raw and inexperienced but physically impressive prospect, Williams’ rookie season was cut short by a season-ending knee injury that landed him on injured reserve. He played in just one preseason game, during which he looked pretty raw, but he did record a sack.
Draft Prognosis: You certainly can’t rule out the Steelers taking a defensive end here. They’ve looked at many of the high-profile prospects at the position, including Ra’Shede Hageman, Stephon Tuitt, and Scott Chrichton, so a prospect here could certainly come during the first two days of the draft.
This is certainly not ideal after using two first-round picks on the position over the five previous drafts, but the position is clearly a need right now, given current uncertainties. Even if Keisel is brought back, that would be just for one more season.