Training camp is right around the corner and like we have for the past few years, plan on being there for every single practice. Matthew Marczi has dutifully given us a low-down on most of the position groups already but with me going to St. Vincent in two weeks, I wanted to outline what I’m looking for from each player. We’ll start with the four quarterbacks on the roster.
Today, we’re kicking over to the defensive line.
Cam Heyward: Heyward is one of the few players on the defense who doesn’t have anything to prove. He’s an elite player looking for back-to-back sacks and certainly capable of doing so. Get out healthy, lead the unit, make a play or two, and it’s a successful summer.
Stephon Tuitt: There isn’t much he has to show in the preseason though 2018 is a fairly important regular season for him. Healthy, you’re looking for him to have that breakout year similar to the way Heyward did last year. The biggest issue he’s had the last two seasons is not always finishing the play, he’s left a handful of sacks on the table, so seeing him change that in the preseason would be encouraging.
Javon Hargrave: I think he had a better season than maybe some others do. Though he faded a bit down the stretch, I attribute a lot of that due to back injury we didn’t learn about until the playoffs. Run defense is something Keith Butler has repeatedly preached over the offseason. That doesn’t fall all on Hargrave, especially in this world of sub-package football, but you’re looking for him to anchor and hold the point of attack against double-teams and combo blocks.
New defensive line coach Karl Dunbar is big on teaching his linemen how to defeat blocks in the run game and Hargrave’s strength and hand use could see him excel even more in that area.
Tyson Alualu: Alualu was a pleasant surprise, especially for how much he had to fill in for the injured Tuitt. He’s not super flashy and more well-rounded than excelling in any one area but he’s not going to be a liability and I like his effort and chase to the football. I doubt that it will happen, and the idea floated last year was sorta silly, but with him in year two of the defense, I wonder if he picks up a snap or two at nose tackle, the way L.T. Walton has expanded his position-flexibility over the years.
L.T. Walton: Walton just turned 26 but he’s already a maxed out player. Tough versus the run, a high-effort player who chases the ball sideline-to-sideline, but going to offer virtually nothing as a pass rusher. That’s one reason why the team decided to move him to nose tackle last year, immediately jumping second-team over Daniel McCullers, which was important since they only keep five DL active on gameday. I assume Walton will be in that role this year, though with some stronger competition, I’m curious to see if he’s still running with the 2’s (my guess is yes).
Daniel McCullers: I know most of us writing for the site have been pretty harsh on Big Dan. But with good reason, a guy who simply hasn’t come close to playing to his potential since getting drafted. If John Mitchell was still the DL coach, I suspect McCullers wouldn’t have been brought back, but here’s to hoping Dunbar can bring something else out of him.
It’s well-documented his primary issue is a lack of aggression and nastiness but at this point in his career, I don’t think that’s going to change at this point even with a new coach. But ideally, Dunbar can teach him better how to shed blocks in the run game while he continues to work over smaller, rookie centers one-on-one as a pass rusher. That’s his best chance to stick around on the 53.
Joshua Frazier: Frazier is a fire hydrant and the Steelers’ final draft pick of the 2018 class. Playing under Dunbar is definitely a plus for him but offers no assurances that he’s making the roster. The others have to adjust to a new coach. He has to adjust to the NFL. Frazier still has it tougher.
Really looking for him to come in and anchor in the run game and use his strength to collapse the A gaps as a pass rusher. Play hard, play consistent, and be assignment-sound. That could get him a ticket on the 53.
Greg Gilmore: The name you shouldn’t forget about in the DL battle, Gilmore was one of the Steelers’ top UDFAs from this most recent class. A high-pedigree guy out of LSU with an impressive 7.5 sacks as a senior. Probably going to play more defensive end than tackle but I think he’s capable of both and if he can, that’s a helpful boost to his value. At 6’3 305 with nearly 34 inch arms, he could see work at either spot.
Kendal Vickers: A tough, “gamer” of a player, Vickers could turn at least a couple heads in camp. Love his effort as a player and his toughness but his total lack of pass rush moves and inability to disengage are the two biggest hangups. I think John Mitchell would’ve liked him a little more than Dunbar. Best outcome would be a practice squad spot. Not sure where he’s going to line up. Better for nose tackle than end, if you ask me, but if you’re the 4th string man in the middle, you’re just not going to see much time.
Casey Sayles: The oft-forgotten member of the team’s defensive line, even by the Steelers website, expect him to play defensive end in camp. Reps, like at any position, will be tough to come by when you’re third string. He’s going to have to make an impact at a higher rate than most to get noticed and take advantage of the days where he’s elevated because one of the starters is getting rest or someone is hurt.
Lavon Hooks: A sort of super sleeper who has been in the Steelers system for years now and came on strong, or at least appeared to, late last preseason, running 2nd team during the all-important preseason game. Ultimately, he didn’t make the team but they’ve brought him back for potentially one last go around. The competition is much tougher this season with Frazier and Gilmore in the mix, making me think Hooks odds are worse, but he is the vet over those guys too. So for a little while at least, he could receive reps over them. At least he has that going for him.
Parker Cothren: One of the last men on the totem pole, it’s hard to see how a guy like him is going to even fit into practice reps. Whoever is the odd man out is going to have a real tough time, even when someone sits out. There’s 12 defensive linemen heading into camp and at max, you get three teams in a practice.
Cothren, or Sayles or whatever guy doesn’t fit into that group, may wind up being the rare rotational piece into sub-packages in some effort to give them work but hardly enough to make much of a mark in practice.