Now that we have completed our look at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 90-man roster heading into training camp a bit under a month from now, it’s time to take a look back at the team’s 53-man roster from last year’s regular season, for the purpose of revisiting the contributions of the players that are no longer with the team, and whether or not those contributions have been adequately replaced.
Roster turnover is just a natural fact of today’s NFL, which have only become more prominent since the advent of free agency more than two decades ago. It’s very rare for a team to return all 11 starters on one side of the ball from one year to the next, let alone to do so for both the offense and defense.
The Steelers are certainly no exception to that rule, and they figure to have a number of lineup changes from 2015 to 2016, which seems to be increasingly common for them in recent years.
Though the position has certainly gone undervalued over the course of the past couple of seasons as both the Steelers and the league as a whole have defensively turned more and more to sub-package football, the loss of veteran nose tackle Steve McLendon will still be felt this year, particularly if their rookie replacement is slow in his development.
In spite of his detractors, McLendon held his own against the run, and his performance this past season in the Steelers’ base defense had a lot to so with the team having their best season in that aspect of the defense in about half a decade, even if he did not accumulate many of the tackles on his own.
Having been the starting nose tackle for the past three seasons, the former undrafted free agent had a tough hill to climb in molding himself into a player that would meet the expectations of the positions, though in truth his natural build was ideally suited toward neither a 3-4 end or nose.
Nevertheless, he made it all work for him through perseverance, discipline, and film study, and served as a good example to those around him. He is certainly a player that the Steelers would have happily welcomed back—if only for a suitable price, and with the team intending to log as much or more time without a nose tackle on the field, the offer that he accepted from the Jets, who lost their own nose tackle in free agency, put them out of his market.
That leaves the responsibilities up to Daniel McCullers in his third season, and rookie Javon Hargrave, a small-school product drafted in the third round who none the less never looked outmatched during the Senior Bowl practices and game.
Hargrave may find himself well off enough as a nickel rusher, but my concern is how soon he develops as a 3-4 nose tackle. In the meantime, the Steelers will look to the 6’7” McCullers to take the step they’d hoped he would last season. in particular, his lateral steps must be more precise so that he doesn’t get washed out of outside zone runs.