The offseason appears to be going quite well so far for fifth-year nose tackle Daniel McCullers, who easily had the best training camp of his career, and has looked pretty solid—though far from flawless-so far through the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first two preseason games, including a handful of pressures in the passing game.
This all appears to set him up for yet another season spent on the team’s 53-man roster, where he has been for his entire career, but that might also come with additional playing time after the big man spent the vast majority of the 2017 season as a healthy scratch and played very sparsely in the few games for which he was active.
So if he not only makes the team but also dresses, that raises the question: who loses out? And the obvious answer would be L.T. Walton, the fourth-year defensive lineman who seemingly passed McCullers on the depth chart last year by earning second-team nose tackle reps in addition to displaying his ability to perform at defensive end, the position he was drafted to play.
Walton was preferred as the number five defensive lineman because it is more advantageous for a team to have a backup defensive lineman that is capable of playing at any spot along the line, even if he doesn’t necessarily do any of them at a particularly high level.
So far, it seems as though the coaching staff has dedicated the offseason to seeing how much McCullers can really give the team at nose tackle, which has come at the expense of other players, such as Walton, getting the opportunity to show the coaching staff what they are capable of.
While Head Coach Mike Tomlin warned not to read too much into who plays where and when—as he always does—the reality is that these things do matter, and his explanation for this particular battle was less compelling than most.
“L.T. has had more reps over the long haul at that position than some others that are dual position guys”, Tomlin said. “So, like I mentioned to you guys before, I would read too much into rotations and whose working with what groups and those things”.
But nobody on the team has taken more practice reps at nose tackle than McCullers has, who has been here for five seasons now. Even their starting nose tackle, Javon Hargrave, is only heading into his third year.
Surely they know by now what McCullers looks like at nose tackle, so to suggest that Walton, who only got one season’s worth of work playing that position, is not being used there this offseason because they’re already comfortable with what they know he can give them there sounds disingenuous.
As things currently stand, I would have to say that it doesn’t look great for the fourth-year lineman in terms of the likelihood of him dressing on Sundays. He didn’t dress much in his first two seasons until injuries were a factor; that might be back where he is heading now.