Good news, last remaining member of the Daniel McCullers fan club. For the first time in a while, the big man they call Shade Tree actually got some reps with the second-team defense at nose tackle, with no injuries playing a part in that development.
McCullers, entering his fifth season, was somewhat of a surprise re-signing this offseason after he slipped to number three on the nose tackle depth chart a year ago and was a regular healthy scratch for games unless another lineman was injured. He hardly played a dozen snaps throughout the season.
After his rookie contract expired, it certainly was anything but clear that he would be brought back. And with the team drafting another defensive tackle this year in Joshua Frazier—albeit in the seventh round—many have already written him off, assuming that he will not make the team.
Let’s be clear, it’s entirely possible that he doesn’t make the team. But he is in camp and competing for a job. Frazier, Greg Gilmore, Lavon Hooks, and everybody else in that group has the opportunity to push for their role. A special mention would have to go to L.T. Walton, who took over the backup nose tackle role last year.
The problem is that he didn’t exactly excel there, but the Steelers desire flexibility in their number five defensive lineman, somebody who can play both inside and outside. That was Chris Hoke, and then Steve McLendon. The hope was that Walton might be able to do that as well.
It’s unclear what the team envisions at the moment, but we’re just getting underway here in Latrobe. There will be plenty of opportunities both in training camp and in the preseason for the Steelers to explore all the options that are available to them in terms of depth at the number five and six spots for the defensive line.
The top four positions, we already know, are of course secure. There are the two thoroughbred defensive ends (such that they play end anymore) in Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, the former being their defensive captain and the first Steeler to break double-digit sacks and far too long. There is third-year nose tackle Javon Hargrave. And then there is valuable backup Tyson Alualu, who was brought in last year as a veteran.
The mere fact that McCullers was even working with the second team is a positive for him. I’m not certain that he even took any second-team reps during training camp last year, so complete was the transition for Walton to move inside.
Now with that said, we won’t even be putting pads on until the weekend, and there aren’t many positions that you learn less about with no pads than defensive linemen. McCullers is in his fifth season and it’s hard to imagine him surprising anybody at this point, but he does have a new position coach to try to impress.