As the calendar continues to push forward, we hasten upon the end of July, where looms the beginning of training camp, the necessary respite for all football fans who have been the past six weeks wondering what to do with themselves—as least as far as the game goes.
With the start of training camp also comes the start of meaningful competition, and I’m not just talking about players getting to put on pads and smash into each other. There are battles to be won. Position battles, roster battles. Battles for starting jobs.
Before we get too deep into the swing of training camp, here is a quick series that provides a preview of some of the most significant battles that will have to be determined over the course of training camp and the preseason, though the regular season can always decide to change the results.
The battle for the starting nose tackle position is an intriguing one, not just in terms of who the competitors are, but also in terms of the role that that position even plays in the Steelers’ defense at this point. Last year, the team logged less than 30 percent of their total defensive snaps with a nose tackle on the field.
But that is in no way to undermine the importance of the nose tackle position, because the snaps on which the nose tackle is on the field are often rather important situational snaps in the game, frequently in short-yardage and goal line situations that have the potential to have a disproportionately large impact on the game.
With the departure of Steve McLendon in free agency, however, the Steelers find themselves without a reliable—or at least proven—option to man that defining spot of the 3-4 defense. There is no incumbent, as McLendon was the starter there for the past three years.
The closest thing to one, however, would be third-year nose tackle Daniel McCullers, a former sixth-round draft pick whose selection came primarily due to his size at 6’7” and over 350 pounds. He played sparsely as a rookie, and last year as well, but that was partly due to an ankle injury that he suffered in the second game of the season.
It’s unclear what sort of impact that injury may have had on his performance or his playing time last year. He also reportedly had offseason surgery on his shoulder. But the advantage that he does have is two years in the Steelers’ system.
His competitor is behind in that regard, with rookie third-round pick Javon Hargrave in fact even coming in as a small-school product with a significant learning curve. But the Steelers drafted Hargrave not just to play nose tackle, but also to serve as a nickel defensive tackle to rush the passer.
Even if McCullers starts at nose tackle, then, it is possible that Hargrave could end up playing more snaps, because the former is unlikely to see many snaps in sub-packages. Either way, the Steelers will no doubt have to platoon the two players this season to accomplish what they need.