It is no doubt a good feeling for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ training camp to be underway, especially now with a couple of days of practice in pads now under our belts as well. It is the surest sign that real, meaningful football will be with us shortly, just around the corner.
For me, however, the greatest excitement about the start of padded practices this year was the opportunity to get a first true feel for rookie third-round defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and how he is able to adapt to an NFL level of competition and size, after coming into the league as a small-school product.
The early results would seem to have been overwhelmingly positive, and it leaves me wondering if he might not open the regular season as the team’s starting nose tackle ahead of third-year tackle Daniel McCullers, who, in spite of his draft pedigree, has been given higher standards that he has yet to live up to.
With the Steelers having lost Steve McLendon in free agency to the Jets, it became necessary for the team to acquire a new talent who can line up in the middle of the defense, even if that defense only utilizes the services of a true nose tackle for somewhere between a third and a quarter of their total defensive snaps.
The nose tackle position may be no longer fairly regarded as a ‘starting’ position if we take our standard to be playing time and snap counts, but the situations in which the nose tackle are employed are no less crucial than they have ever been—short-yardage situations, on third down and on the goal line, especially.
At only around 300 pounds himself, Hargrave has never been regarded as the sort of prototypical nose tackle who will regular command multiple blockers to engage him based purely on size, but he possesses a rare quickness and athleticism that will necessitate that multiple players try to stop him, or else he will be registering tackles in the backfield.
The biggest question that he seemed to have to answer was whether or not his exceptional quickness in comparison to low-level collegiate competition would be enough to translate all the way up to the elite level of NFL players. No less than Joe Greene was deployed to assess that possibility, and he came away confident that it would.
The early training camp results have strongly indicated that that is indeed the case, though I am anticipating hearing of more frequent opportunities for him to take on the Steelers’ gold standard offensive linemen in Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro, two first-team All-Pro players in their most recent healthy seasons.
Meanwhile, little positive has been said of McCullers thus far, before or since the pads have come on, only to say that he has, again, gotten himself into shape, which we have heard three times now. unlike the battle at left tackle, there is a spot that is nobody’s to lose, only to be won. And it is looking in the early goings that Hargrave will have his chance to win the job.