For years, since the Pittsburgh Steelers used a first-round draft pick on nose tackle Casey Hampton and solidified their anchor point along the defensive line in the final decade or so of the era of the nose tackle as a starting position, the team had not felt it necessary to use premium resources in the draft in order to replenish their defensive line.
Of course, a large part of that is the fact that they already had the right players in place, with former fourth-round draft pick Aaron Smith epitomizing what the Steelers looked for in a 3-4 defensive end. Free agent signing Kimo Von Oelhoffen was a bridge to Brett Keisel. A former seventh-round pick who ended up going to the Pro Bowl.
But starting in 2009, after close to a decade of steady line play, the Steelers again took to the draft to restock their defensive line, and since then have used four selections in the first three rounds on defensive linemen.
First was Ziggy Hood in 2009, who was never quite the fit that they were looking for and yet suited them well enough more often than not—still, he left after his rookie deal. Cameron Heyward followed in the first round yet again two years later.
It would be another three seasons, and the final for Keisel, before the team drafted defensive end Stephon Tuitt in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Just last season they added a dynamic piece as a rushing interior player in the third round, Javon Hargrave.
All three of their starters along the defensive line are now all day-one or day-two selections, but is that enough? Especially coming off a season in which Heyward missed games for the first time in his career—landing on injured reserve—and another ankle injury for Tuitt, they may be feeling the need for more security behind them.
The team has tried to use free agency in the bargain section to bolster their depth with Cam Thomas and Ricardo Mathews over the course of the past three seasons, but neither proved to be sufficient. So that leads one to wonder just how early the defensive line may be in play in the upcoming draft.
The Steelers played the final two games of the regular season without both Heyward and Tuitt, which was not ideal. We even saw a steady drop-off following Heyward’s first injury, with Tuitt taking center stage, initially.
How important is it then to add a significant draft pick along the defensive line in order to shore thing up behind Heyward, Tuitt, and Hargrave. Though it improved over time, their depth was clearly exposed last season.
A subset question to the above is whether or not the team will try to look a bit more out of the box for this option. They seriously entertained Jason Jones last season, who best profiles as a 4-3 end and could present a larger body on the edge in their predominant nickel base. It might be time to pursue a piece of this nature, though that is a topic that I have written about before a time or two.