What To Expect From “Shade Tree” In Year Two?

The theme in the 2014 draft for the Pittsburgh Steelers seemed to center on  getting younger and adding an infusion of speed, but the team added an entity seemingly from the Stone Age in the form of mastodon defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, the heaviest Steeler in franchise history (yes, even Casey Hampton and his “325 pounds”).

“He blots out the sun and the earth moves when he walks,” NFL Network’s Charles Davis said. “He’s an absolute monster.”

At 6-foot-7 and 352 pounds, only 20 percent of which is body fat, it’s safe to say he is much more muscularly solid than just your average “blob” of a 350-pound defensive tackle. He wasn’t always that way though, reportedly weighing in at approximately 420 pounds at Georgia Military School before slimming to 360 and accepting his scholarship to the University of Tennessee. His weight loss remedy? A simple tweak to his diet, with the simple subtraction of sodas and Doritos.

“Sometimes I miss Doritos, but I know I don’t need them,” McCullers said. 

Projected to go higher in the draft, he slid to the sixth round and when Pittsburgh was on the clock, he was their man.

“Why he was there in the draft when he was is hard for me to say, but the size is intriguing,” Kevin Colbert said. “He goes to the Senior Bowl and does some things which make you really say, ‘Wow.’ When I made the visit to Tennessee in the fall, I came away saying this guy is gigantic and can play defense. It’s an obstruction and he’s a nice, big guy to work with. Big guys are hard to come by these days.”

In the same draft, Pittsburgh cast its’ net and reeled in the drafts biggest, and smallest prospects in McCullers and Dri Archer, respectively.

The jury on Archer is still out, but as the season progressed, so did the uptick in playing time for McCullers. Due to a barrage of injuries to starting nose tackle Steve McLendon, McCullers got on the field more and more in the latter stages of the season, perhaps playing his best football when it mattered most, in the playoffs. With McLendon nearing 30, and his contract set to expire after the 2015 campaign, could the behemoth be the nose tackle of the future in Pittsburgh? To his teammates, the answer has a positive outlook.

Making his NFL debut on a Monday-nighter against the Houston Texans, a key play in the third quarter gave a glimpse at the untapped potential the giant possesses. McCullers put up 27 reps of 225 on the bench press at the combine, and on a particular pass play, McCullers showed off that strength when he rag-dolled Texans Pro Bowl center Chris Myers deep into the backfield.

“I remember seeing that close up,” Cameron Heyward said. “And the thing I love about it is he’s wearing down these centers so if I have to go against them, they’re tired. I’m telling you once Dan starts really using that body nobody can block him.”

Often viewed as a gentle giant for having such a quiet demeanor, Heyward said the coaches are trying to pull a mean streak out of their colossal defensive tackle. It could be viewed as a glass half-empty, half full comparison but one man McCullers’ size with a mean streak brings to mind one name-Albert Haynesworth. Often viewed as a player who runs hot and cold, mostly motivated by money, the Steelers’ brass can hope McCullers hatches into a wrecking-ball like Haynesworth, minus the headaches.

While his extraordinary innate strength is unquestioned, his main focus with a full offseason should be maintaining a low center of gravity off the snap, something difficult for a 6-foot-7 human being.

“If I use my hands and stay low, I’m not worried about a nasty streak,” McCullers said.

With a full offseason of coaching up by defensive line coach John Mitchell, McCullers can only get better. Heyward even went on to compare his build to former-All Pros Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. Swallowing up double-teams in the middle would do nothing but help Heyward, one of the best young 3-4 ends in the league.

“Dan can be a really good player in this league,” Heyward noted. “We’re just waiting for him to decide.”

If this offseason the light comes on for McCullers and he figures how to channel his innate strength, the Steelers’ brain trust could have another sixth-round gem on their hands.

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