When the Pittsburgh Steelers lost veteran nose tackle Steve McLendon in free agency yesterday, it opened up a pretty big hole in the team’s defensive line depth. But let’s not forget that the Steelers already had a hole there. Now the team has two holes to fill along the defensive line—one that they already knew about, and one that they were bracing for.
The other hole, of course, will be that which will be vacated by unrestricted free agent Cam Thomas when he manages to sign elsewhere, as it is rather unlikely that the Steelers end up re-signing him upon completion of his two-year, $4 million tenure with the team.
Take a look at the team’s defensive line as it is currently configured at your own risk, as it’s pretty dire once you get past the top. Up there are Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, two excellent bookend defensive ends who combined for 13.5 sacks last season and are on the cusp of Pro Bowl recognition.
Behind those two is the obstruction, Daniel McCullers, who did not offer much in his second season last year, although it should not be considered all that surprising given that the Steelers moved away from the nose tackle position—and he also missed the quarter of the season because of an ankle injury.
With McLendon’s departure, of course, McCullers’ role in 2016 becomes elevated, at least for the moment, as the starting nose tackle, such that there is a starting nose tackle in 2016. His playing time diminished following his injury and late in the season, but he came into the year with aspirations to show something. Reading the tea leaves suggests that there are mixed feelings about him among those whose opinions might matter (read: not bloggers).
After that? Well, there are two young players who were rookies last year in L.T. Walton, who spent the entire season on the 53-man roster, but was inactive for every game in which there were no linemen out with an injury, and Caushaud Lyons, who was claimed off waivers as an undrafted free agent, spent the first three weeks on the 53-man roster inactive, and then was moved to the practice squad for the rest of the year.
If the Steelers manage to find one keeper in between those two, then they should consider themselves fortunate, but even if that should come to pass, the reality is that neither of them fill either of the holes that are now open along the team’s defensive front line.
That could mean double dipping at the position come draft time, but given the other defensive needs, that might not be the sort of resources that they could afford to commit there, so it may require bargain hunting in free agency yet again in a year in which there seem to be few bargains.
The issue that the Steelers have found is that their interior defensive players have lacked much pass rush ability. McCullers appears to lack much on that front, and McLendon never developed in that area the way he was anticipated. Perhaps they can get that through the draft, but even if they do, it only plugs one hole. Where will they find the other plug to fill the leaky defensive line?