Right now, the Pittsburgh Steelers have about two defensive ends on their roster about which they are comfortable, and those would be the two in the starting lineup. One of them is a second-year player with just five starts under his belt, which kind of says just what kind of state of uncertainty the depth at the position is currently in.
Minus a couple of veteran journeyman free agent pickups, the depth currently consists of primarily Reserve/Future signings, a late-round draft pick, and a smattering of undrafted free agents. It is from this group that the Steelers will likely find at least two players to build of their depth chart.
A season ago, the team kept a pair of young defensive ends on their practice squad that showed up well for them during the preseason, a rookie undrafted free agent and a second-year late-rounder who spent his first season on injured reserve.
Both players, Josh Mauro and Nick Williams, ended up being signed off the Steelers’ practice squad—presumably with no attempt to sign them to the 53-man roster beforehand—which caused admittedly a disproportionate amount of heartache amongst certain fans.
Those two were replaced by Joe Kruger and Ethan Hemer, who return this summer as Reserve/Future players after finishing off last season on the practice squad, hoping to make the jump to the 53-man roster in what could fairly be described as an open competition, given the available talent alluded to previously.
Considering the above, I would deem it unfair to paint these two players as out of the picture. They do, after, all, at least have some prior experience in John Mitchell’s system, Hemer in particular, who spent the offseason with the Steelers.
Hemer and Mauro were not terribly far off from one another in terms of performance during the preseason, although Mauro often played ahead of him. Mauro notched two sacks, but Hemer also had a sack during the preseason, for example, in about half the amount of snaps.
That is why Hemer was signed to the practice squad to replace Mauro—and likely part of the reason why the Steelers did not seem to resist his departure with much ferocity—but the departure of Williams forced the front office to dig a big deeper in signing Kruger.
A former seventh-round draft pick with NFL bloodlines, the Steelers did not bring him in for a pre-draft visit, but he was widely connected to the team during the draft process. They ended up taking Williams later in the same seventh round.
Like Williams, Kruger spent his rookie season on injured reserve, but he bounced around practice squads last year before landing with the Steelers in November. He was a bit underweight coming out, but has since put on the pounds to match his 6’6” frame, with the team listing him at 287.
Neither Hemer nor Kruger have yet tasted regular season football, and, admittedly, they weren’t even the Steelers’ top two choices for their scout team ends a year ago. But they should not be discounted from the race just yet.