Second-year Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Daniel McCullers was having a very good offseason until recently, when he suffered a hamstring injury evidently running after practice. The injury sidelined him for some time up until yesterday, when he finally put his uniform back on and participated in a limited capacity with his teammates.
While he continues to work his way back, his influx of reps will have a cascade effect on the rest of the defensive line, and may perhaps help to influence one of the few roster battles currently underway in training camp.
For most of the spring and into training camp, the Steelers defensive line had consisted of rookie L.T. Walton at left defensive end, McCullers at nose tackle, and Clifton Geathers at right defensive end.
With McCullers sidelined, Thomas jumped into the nose tackle roll, ahead of undrafted rookie free agent Mike Thornton, who was signed to the roster as a minicamp tryout invite.
Geathers has since been placed on injured reserve with some sort of undisclosed condition, however, which has opened up opportunities for some of the defensive linemen further down the depth chart.
Without question, the player who has profited the most from the pair of Geathers and Thomas being sidelined is first-year defensive end Ethan Hemer, who joined the Steelers last year as an undrafted rookie and spent the back half of the regular season on the team’s practice squad.
Recently, the second-team defensive line has consisted of Walton, Thomas, and Hemer, getting the increased, and higher quality, reps that help to put him in position to make a legitimate push for a spot on the 53-man roster.
His competition for that spot seems to be the rookie, Walton, but the question that remains is how long Hemer will be able to hold on to the reps he has been getting, and that is a question that may be getting an answer very soon.
Once McCullers gets back to full capacity, he will surely regain his place as the second-team nose tackle. But Thomas likely will not be demoted to the third-team line. Instead, he should be taking Hemer’s spot at defensive end, where he started most of last season.
Thomas has shown noticeable improvement from last season, with his quick first step off the snap in particular being a noteworthy addition to his repertoire, and it certainly seems as though he has locked in a position on the 53-man roster.
With five positions secure, and the Steelers highly unlikely to carry more than six, it will come down to Walton and Hemer, and it seems unlikely that the team would demote Walton now from the second-team line after he had been running with that unit for the length of the offseason.
Hemer will have to fight for his roster spot working with the third-team line, or so I would suspect. Not that that is an impossible task, and the truth is that Hemer has played well so far during the preseason. He certainly has a step ahead of the rookie in terms of fundamentals, though he lacks the same athleticism. Either way, this should be a fun battle to watch.