Of all the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2016 draft picks, it has to be third-round selection Javon Hargrave who walks into the most interesting predicament as a rookie. Put simply, he is the only player the Steelers drafted whom they have a strong compulsion to play, without starting, because of who would be coming off the field.
The Steelers did not make it much of a secret that it was their desire to improve their interior pass-rushing depth, not because they needed help, but rather because they needed rest—more specifically, starting defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt need to get more breathers over the course of the season.
The only reason that they did not last year is because the Steelers were inadequately prepared to substitute for them through most of the season, and that led to them playing, when healthy, about 85 percent of the team’s snaps or more, a statistic that rose as the games became more crucial late in the year.
The coaching staff, including defensive line coach John Mitchell, believes that Hargrave is the type of player who is capable of taking some of those snaps away from Heyward and Tuitt over the course of the season due to his quickness off the ball, in spite of the fact that the team does view him as a nose tackle in their 3-4 defense, and not an end.
The lines become somewhat blurred when it comes to their nickel defense, which in a way becomes more similar to a 4-3 sub-package front, with the down linemen serving as defensive tackles and the outside linebackers effectively playing the role of ends.
The Steelers had become aware over time that Cam Thomas was not the sort of player who could generate the pressure they needed to justify taking their ends off the field. The same lesson was learned with nose tackle Steve McLendon. Neither played much in the nickel in meaningful situations. Rookie sixth-rounder L.T. Walton was not ready for the role, and spent most of the season on the inactive list.
With McLendon leaving in free agency, there is both the opening and the incentive to get Hargrave on the field, which is why I believe that he has the best chance of all the team’s rookies to have the greatest impact on the season, and part of that impact very much entails the ability to give Heyward and Tuitt some down time during games.
The only player standing in his way is Daniel McCullers, and McCullers, frankly, is not a player that the team will trust to log many snaps in their nickel defense, which is what they spend the vast majority of their time playing. Even if McCullers wins the nose tackle job, Hargrave could very easily still log more snaps on the season.