The Pittsburgh Steelers entered this league year with nearly a couple dozen players scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. They ended up retaining five of those unrestricted free agents, but did not tender their one restricted free agent, who signed elsewhere.
Pittsburgh also added help from outside of the organization at tight end, tackle, linebacker, and the defensive line, but suffered several free agency losses, chiefly at cornerback and linebacker, and suffered yet another key retirement in the process. There were no significant player releases, and no contracts were restructured. They still have six unrestricted free agents who remain unsigned.
The organization has been clear throughout recent weeks that they have essentially wrapped up all meaningful free agent activities, with the focus turning to the draft, so now is a good time to take a look back and see where each position started at the beginning of the process and where it is now leading up to the draft.
Position: Defensive Tackle
Total Positional Figure: 3
Offseason additions: 2
Offseason losses: 1
Daniel McCullers: Even if the nose tackle position is now a glorified sub-package position in the Steelers’ current defense, during which they log upwards of 70 percent of their snaps with five or more defensive backs on the field, there is, nonetheless, an awful lot riding on the very large shoulders of Daniel McCullers right now.
Earning the nickname of Shade Tree due to his fairly gargantuan frame, the former sixth-round draft pick has more or less lived up to his draft stock. While the team has been seemingly relatively high on him at times, he has been unable to see the field often, and when he has, he has not been very productive. It is somewhat hard to imagine him serving as the team’s primary nose tackle in 2016, particularly in short-yardage situations.
Roy Philon: Former undrafted free agent Roy Philon spent an offseason with the Steelers a short while ago, but he struggled to find much work during training camp and the preseason. When he did see the field, he seemed a bit of a sparkplug, even if he is undersized for a traditional nose tackle—which may be to his advantage this time around.
Lavon Hooks: Despite reportedly turning some heads early on as an undrafted free agent, Lavon Hooks was part of the initial roster cuts for the Packers in 2015, and was out of the league until the Steelers recently signed him to a Reserve/Future contract.
Players Lost/Not Retained:
Steve McLendon: Steve McLendon’s free agency departure was a big one, but given the contract he signed, and the Steelers’ value of the position, it is understandable why they did not entertain extending a similar deal.
All the same, McLendon was quite an asset in the team’s 3-4 front, particularly against the run, but his limitations as a nickel pass rusher also limited his snaps, and thus his value. Still, he will need to be replaced in some form or fashion.
Notes and Draft Outlook: For the purposes of this series, he was viewed as a defensive end, but the name of Cam Thomas has to be mentioned in this category as well. Thomas started two games at nose tackle in place of McLendon in 2014, and logged some snaps at nose tackle last year as well. He, like McLendon, is no longer a part of the picture, leaving just McCullers from last season’s roster.
This position—or rather the position of a hybrid 3-4 nose and nickel defensive tackle—may well be the team’s singular biggest need, which is why a player like Andrew Billings has been so frequently mocked to the Steelers, especially among those who know the team’s situation best. There’s no question, however, that some body, at some point in the draft, will be added here, and it will be very surprising if it’s not at least by the end of day two.