Kozora: Steelers Should Call Jets To Improve DL Depth

Being the armchair GM offers countless hours of entertainment. I’m sure actual front office members laugh at us for trying, but it’s the exploration and imagination that creates debate and makes the exercise enjoyable.

There are a lot of people trying to come up with trade ideas as we roll through the first quarter of the year and get a better feel for what this Pittsburgh Steelers’ unit offers. Creating realistic and feasible trades are never easy, especially as you try to get specific, but I decided to take a crack at it.

Before I get into any rationale, let me offer up my armchair proposal.

The Steelers trade Dri Archer and a 2017 7th round pick to the New York Jets for defensive end Leger Douzable.

As I wrote in my quarterly charting notes, Cameron Heyward is playing 85% of the snaps while Stephon Tuitt is at the 88% mark. Cam Thomas is averaging 10 snaps per game at defensive end and that number has dwindled to a combined nine over the last two weeks. A little in part due to Daniel McCullers’ absence but the point remains the team wants to limit his snaps as much as possible for the sake of the team.

That is understandable, in fact down right agreeable, but it leaves the team’s starters vulnerable. Especially Tuitt. Heyward is a grown man, used to the rigors of the NFL. Tuitt is a man-child with the emphasis on “child,” a 22 year old who has never come close to the nearly 1000 snaps he’s projected to see at his current pace. There’s real concern for the “rookie wall,” something he didn’t experience in 2014 since he didn’t see notable snaps until the last quarter of the year.

He’s been phenomenal, to argue otherwise would be silly, but you want to protect him from himself down the stretch. The Steelers are certainly going to need his best football in that last push for a playoff spot. The Steelers aren’t exactly going to be waltzing into January. They’ll be scrapping, clawing, praying.

The defensive end options aren’t staggering. I considered the Arizona Cardinals’ Cory Redding, a veteran with a contract that isn’t matching his snap count. But the Cardinals likely aren’t interested in Archer, given their stable of running backs and speedy receivers. I’d love to swing Redding but the justification for the deal didn’t make enough sense. It’s worth pointing out the Cardinals did bring in Archer for a pre-draft visit. I just don’t know where he’d fit with the current roster.

Ditto for the San Francisco 49ers and defensive end Tony Jerrod-Eddie. Another name of interest but with Reggie Bush, Jarryd Hayne, and a solid returner in Bruce Ellington, the fit on the opposing end doesn’t make sense.

Trading a player does seem a little more common this year. The 49ers and Minnesota Vikings just made a deal, swapping Nick Easton for Gerald Hodges with the Vikings getting a draft pick for good measure. Though there weren’t two players involved, the St. Louis Rams traded Chris Givens, stuck on the bottom of their depth chart, to the Baltimore Ravens. The New England Patriots dealt for Keshawn Martin earlier this season. Front offices are receptive to deals, even this early in the season.

The Jets could use a spark plug to their offense. They did draft Devin Smith, a burner, at receiver but his progress was slowed by broken ribs in training camp. Assuming Archer says a running back, he’d be a different type to the powerful Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell. He could bump Zac Stacy – also acquired in a trade – off the roster. Stacy is the team’s starting KR but has only averaged 21 yards per return. Archer would give the team the potential to have a shot in the arm. And of course, the draft pick two years from now.

Fans may not like to hear the Steelers are dishing out another draft pick but it’s for 2017 because the team is a little thinner in 2016. Remember, they’re likely to get a 7th round compensation pick, maybe even a six if the formula is generous, for Brice McCain, who is playing over 90% of the snaps with the Miami Dolphins. With the 7th rounder acquired for Brad Wing, the Steelers will be back up to seven total selections in 2016. Anything heavier than that and you’re drafting guys with little chance to make the team – there are so few spots available each year on established, not rebuilding, teams like the Steelers.

If you really wanted to, I’m sure the team could trade back in the 4th round (assuming Brandon Boykin doesn’t hit the 60% threshold, bumping up the compensation, something that seems unlikely) and grab another 5th, giving them five selections in the first six rounds and three in the seventh. A comfortable eight in total.

Now, to Douzable. He has played a respectable amount of snaps this year, 111 on defense, or 41.3% of the Jets’ total. That number is about to nosedive, though, with the return of Sheldon Richardson after the Jets’ bye week. The frontline of the Jets is incredibly strong with Muhammad Wilkerson, an All-Star, and first round pick Leonard Williams, who is playing close to 80% of the time already. With Stephen Bowen and T.J. Barnes also at the position, there’s an in-flux of talent and a guy like Douzable is expendable. If he stays, there isn’t a clear role for him.

So who is he? He’s perhaps a little undersized, listed at 284 pounds but I suspect that like most linemen, is actually heavier than his biography indicates. If he’s around 295, he’s fine to play a 3-4 end in the Steelers’ system.

I will admit he has been used a little differently in New York than he would be in Pittsburgh. The majority of his snaps have come playing as a seven technique, one spot over to the outside of the tackle, as opposed to doing what the Steelers do – lining up as the four (inside shoulder of the OT) or five technique (head up on the tackle).

But what attracts to him is his versatility. He’s lined up all over the Jets’ front. A near-300 pounder who can wear almost every hat. He’s played as that wide end on both sides and between the tackles to both sides. He’s stood up to mimic an outside linebackers in some passing situations and against the Philadelphia Eagles, lined up like an off-ball inside linebacker twice. He’d be a fun wrinkle for Keith Butler to play around with in this defense.

And to get back to basics, his 2014 tape suggests playing as a more conventional defensive end.

The experience in the league is important to me. He has had to undergo several coaching changes, moving from Rex Ryan to Todd Bowles – and in his hypothetical – Butler, but Douzable is a veteran, not a rookie. He’s 29 and played 666 snaps (creepy) over the last three seasons, including 2015. The field isn’t new to him.

The Steelers aren’t new to him either. He had one of his better games against them last year, recording three tackles and a sack in the Jets’ Week 10 victory.

For those who are contract-minded, Douzable is in the last year of his cheap deal. The Steelers will put some energy, and potentially some money, into Steve McLendon, but Douzable should be a cheap player to re-sign and give the Steelers a #3 DE they don’t have to look for on the open market or in the draft.

His tape doesn’t scream at you but he’s a good athlete who runs well to the ball and doesn’t put up a lot of bad on film. He would do significantly better against zone concepts, flowing down the line better than Cam Thomas, who is best against man and gap runs where he can hold the point of attack instead of moving laterally.

I’d love to bring Douzable in as obviously a rotational end, but especially as an occasional nickel end on early downs so Tuitt and Heyward aren’t gassed by third down. Mix Douzable in early and then on third and nine, put in a fresh Tuitt/Heyward and let them eat. You hate to have Thomas in there because of his inability to disengage or push the pocket as a nickel rusher. He just takes up space – a black hole when you need a comet.

Of course, Douzable’s snaps would still be sporadic. With his versatility and proven ability to play either side, he would be the top backup at each end spot, but his snap count in theory would be around 40% in each game. If we assume a game of 60 snaps, Heyward and Tuitt would play around 80% each (48/60) with Douzable picking up the other 12 for each spot. That gives 97 and 91 breathers they desperately are going to need down the line without taking away too many snaps from your clear-cut starters and two dudes balling out right now.

He also offers some special teams value, employed by the Jets as a wedge man on their kick return unit. He wouldn’t have to be used there, and probably wouldn’t when the Steelers are fully healthy, but it’s an attractive option for a team that does turn to its defensive lineman as backups at the position (L.T. Walton took Matt Spaeth’s spot Thursday).

Speaking of Walton, he probably gets sent down to the practice squad. But four weeks on the roster, if we were to assume the deal is done now, and two weeks active with some snaps on defense, is more than I think anyone expected from a raw rookie. Thomas isn’t worth cutting. He’s a vested veteran whose salary is guaranteed. Keep him on the inactive list in case on injury to an end or a nose tackle. If Steve McLendon or Daniel McCullers gets hurt, you have another nose tackle option to immediately give a hat. You’ve improved your defensive line depth all around.

It’s not sexy but rarely are in-season trades in the NFL eye-popping. It’s a pragmatic move to upgrade in an area that you might not realize you need until Week 15 when Tuitt is banged up, Heyward is overburdened, and your depth is zilch.

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