The Pittsburgh Steelers were fortunate to have quality depth at the defensive end position last season, with all of the top four ends on the roster receiving significant playing time, even starts, at some point or another.
But such security was short-lived, as three of those four players hit unrestricted free agency this spring, with two of them signing elsewhere, and the third perceived as limited with age and injury concerns, and thus unsigned.
Many were surprised that the Steelers didn’t at least retain Al Woods, who started two games last year at nose tackle, but also received a lot of reps at defensive end. He signed a relatively modest contract generally, but perhaps a bit much given his limited overall experience.
The Steelers instead chose to use free agency and the draft to rebuild the depth chart, selecting their projected future starter in Stephon Tuitt in the second round.
But before he cracks the starting lineup, he’ll most likely have to serve an apprenticeship behind free agent signing Cam Thomas.
Thomas, who started the majority of the 2013 season at nose tackle for the San Diego Chargers before being demoted to rotational duty, was signed by the Steelers to a contract comparable to the one that Woods signed earlier in the offseason.
So why, then, did they bother signing Thomas at all? Why not just re-sign Woods?
The front office knew the situation that they could potentially be facing later on in the summer—the one they’re in now—and chose to go with the more experienced player rather than the one with more time spent in the system.
Because the reality is that Tuitt is the future, but in all likelihood, not the present.
Tuitt himself described his spring thus far as “rocky”, as his work during practices has largely gone unnoticed by the various football scribes who cover them. That generally means that he’s been thoroughly unremarkable, especially for a high draft pick at a position of need.
If there is need for a bridge from the past to the present, the Steelers historically would prefer to rely on experience, and that’s one clear advantage that Thomas has over Woods.
Over the past four seasons, Thomas has nearly quadruple the amount of playing time that Woods has logged since both entered the league.
And while defensive line coach John Mitchell typically likes to strip down a player and break his learned tendencies when he first gets them on board—whether it’s through the draft or free agency—he hasn’t expressed the same concerns for Thomas.
He praised Thomas, saying that “Cam doesn’t have to learn a lot”, and citing his experience at both defensive end and nose tackle with the five technique and the three technique, as well as the one.
While Thomas may ultimately be destined to fill Woods’ old role at the top reserve at all three defensive line positions, the coaching staff feels that he is better suited than the former Steeler of being tasked with serving as an interim starter, and I see that as the main reason he is here now instead of Woods.