Pittsburgh Steelers second-year defensive end Brian Arnfelt is the only end on the roster other than Cameron Heyward to have taken even a single snap on defense for Dick LeBeau last year, and he merely doubled that with his two total plays on the line.
But that doesn’t mean he’s a shoe-in to make the roster this time around. After all, he was on the practice squad for most of the 2013 season before being called up late. The Steelers parted with Ziggy Hood, Al Woods, and Brett Keisel since then, but he’s still got plenty of competition to wade through before assuring himself of a roster spot.
Pittsburgh signed Cam Thomas in free agency, who projects to begin the year as the starting left defensive end—but only until their rookie second-round draft pick, Stephon Tuitt, is ready to start, which could very well come this season.
Aside from these two, the Steelers still have their seventh-round defensive end from a year ago, Nick Williams, as well as two new promising rookie undrafted free agents in Josh Mauro and Ethan Hemer.
It would be foolish to say that those players don’t have a chance, considering that’s the position that Arnfelt found himself in a year ago. Just because he took a pair of snaps in a game last year doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s got a tremendous advantage.
And that’s all assuming that the Steelers don’t simply re-sign Keisel to serve as a rotational end along with Thomas or Tuitt, depending on who is starting.
It’s also interesting to note that, with Tuitt at left end and Thomas at nose tackle, when Heyward left practice with a minor injury yesterday, the coaches didn’t just move Arnfelt, the second-team right defensive end, up. Instead, they moved Thomas to right defensive end and inserted Hebron Fangupo at nose tackle.
But at the same time, it’s hard not to like Arnfelt’s chances. He came in with a solid understanding of the position, which many rookie 3-4 defensive ends do not, and he showed throughout his first training camp and the preseason that he could play with technical ability.
As a result, the Steelers wanted to see more and more of him, and that resulted in him playing more snaps on defense during the preseason for Pittsburgh than anybody but Woods, who was playing at two positions.
Heyward spoke positively about Arnfelt’s maturation through the course of the season earlier this year before the draft, and about how impressed he was with his work ethic and his progress:
Brian has put in a lot of work this offseason. He’s been here almost every day with me working out. He’s definitely come a long way. I thought him being around, not even playing that much but being around guys like Brett Keisel and Ziggy (Hood), he got to learn a lot.
Every day through practice you saw Brian get better. You could see at the end of practices towards the end of the year, he was really starting to strive and make a lot of progress. Going against our offense and our offensive line, it’s only going to make you better.
He followed that up just recently, telling Chris Bradford of Times Online that the two have put in a lot of work together throughout the offseason. Heyward called Arnfelt “a student of the game”, saying that “he wants to learn a lot. Never satisfied in what’s he doing. He wants to try for more”.
Defensive line coach John Mitchell also recently praised the second-year defensive end’s mind for the game, calling him a “smart guy” and saying that “he knows what to do” and “doesn’t make mental mistakes”. He followed that up by adding that “we are not going to throw a guy in there and say he’ll make mistakes and we’ll live with it”. You have to figure that that gives a guy like Arnfelt an advantage.
Mitchell also spoke about Arnfelt’s ability to run well, which is of primary concern for the defensive line coach, because his defensive line must have strong lateral mobility to control the line of scrimmage. He added that “he wasn’t as strong as we’d like him to be” a year ago , but that “he paid the price this offseason”.
Will that be enough to afford him admission to the 53-man roster and a spot in the defensive line rotation this year? Or will one of the other young defensive ends slip by him? Either way, Arnfelt is not taking this roster battle lightly, as he told Bradford. “Every day I wake up and I look at it as I’m starting at square one”, he said. “Just have to put the work in. If you play well enough, good things will come”.