Steelers 2015 Draft Needs: Defensive End

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The calendar is quickly flipping through the month of April, and each day brings us closer and closer to the 2015 NFL Draft. By now, teams should have by and large accomplished everything that they have set out to do in terms of free agent roster building, which means that their sole focus is now preparing for the draft.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have finally been able to clear the Troy Polamalu hurdle and settle into their pre-draft roster. We have broken down the Steelers’ moves at each position in free agency in terms of re-signings, free agent additions and subtractions, cuts, and retirements, so now we begin the final process: determining draft needs.

We now begin to turn our focus to the defensive side of the ball as we seek to determine the areas in greatest need of being address in next week’s draft for the Steelers. The first position up for further examination is the defensive end, where the team has two young starters, and less than inspiring depth behind them.

Needless to say, the defensive end group is spearheaded by Cameron Heyward, the former first-round draft pick who is coming off his first full season as a starter after taking over the position a quarter of the way through the 2013 season.

Since that time, Heyward has emerged as a leader both on the field and in the locker room, and that role will become especially prominent as the older players, including longtime defensive end and former Pro Bowler Brett Keisel, retire.

A leader by example, Heyward has recorded 12.5 sacks over the past two seasons, including a team-high 7.5 sacks last year. And perhaps his biggest assignment is helping to accelerate the progress of young Stephon Tuitt.

Tuitt, entering his second season, during which he will be only 22, started the last five games of the year, and is now an unquestioned starter, but they are counting on him to make a significant leap from year one to year two.

Behind Heyward and Tuitt are Cam Thomas and Clifton Geathers, two free agent signings last season, the latter an in-season injury replacement. Geathers did not player for the Steelers at all, but Thomas started most of the season ahead of Tuitt before being demoted.

Outside of a couple of practice squad defensive ends—who were less highly regarded by the organization than the two defensive ends that were plucked off the practice squad by other teams—the Steelers do not have much to offer.

That means that they could very well use yet another high draft pick, perhaps on day two, on a defensive lineman, not only to provide depth, but also, perhaps, to serve as a specialist in sub-packages, which are only becoming increasingly prominent.

With the Steelers spending about half the time in their nickel defense, they have been, in essence, running a four-man line with ends as tackles and linebackers as ends. Perhaps if they can manage to add a player who would fit in as a true 4-3 end tweener type, they could stand to be just a bit more versatile in their defensive looks. Even if that is not the plan, however, it would not be surprising at all to see some depth added to this position at some point in the draft.

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