Daniel McCullers rarely dressed during the 2017 regular season in his fourth year in the NFL. He only played a total of 13 snaps. Through two games in 2018, he has earned the role of the number five defensive lineman, a regular helmet, and more playing time, already up to 15 snaps, more than he had for all of last season.
This is in spite of the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers have the exact same six defensive linemen on the 53-man roster as they did a year ago. And the top four defensive linemen are still in their same roles, with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt the starting defensive ends, Javon Hargrave the nose tackle, and Tyson Alualu the first player off the bench.
This year, he leaped back ahead of L.T. Walton as the number five lineman, the one who gets to dress, following an offseason in which he was not immediately re-signed. McCullers knows that the rubber has met the road and that it’s time for him to make his move in his career. But there’s another reason for the difference.
There is the change at position coach, which initially seemed to work against him. Former defensive line coach John Mitchell moved to a new role this year, the team bringing in Karl Dunbar. They then drafted a player that he spent the past two years coaching at Alabama. But McCullers won the job.
“Coach Dunbar, he’s been working with me a lot, and all the d-line, helping us pick up techniques and things that help us each game”, he told Chris Adamski. “And we feel like we are building something good with him. We’re just trying to keep it going. He’s building some trust in me, and I am trying to make it grow more”.
There is no secret that Mitchell was never high on McCullers as a player. The beat reporters frequently talk about how he constantly would get on the huge yet timid nose tackle, who struggled to play with the temperament necessary to succeed.
It’s hard to say which is a bigger factor in his improvement. Was it the new defensive coordinator, or the internal motivation, knowing that he is facing a make-or-break moment? It was a distinct possibility that his career would end before the regular season began. Now he’s playing for a bigger contract in 2019.
Will he actually get the opportunity to play enough that would even put him in consideration for a contract for more than the veteran minimum? It’s hard to say. Right now, he is on pace to play only 120 snaps, which wouldn’t even be a career-high. But the fact that he’s even still playing would have come as a surprise to many half a year ago.