When the Pittsburgh Steelers took a chance on ‘Big’ Daniel McCullers in the sixth round five years ago, they knew he would be a project. They described him as a project. But they also described him as “an obstruction”—what else can you call a 6’7”, 350-pounder—and that was enough for them to think they had something to work with.
Five years later, he is still here, much to the surprise of many. And with their other two backup defensive linemen also scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, as he is as well, the Steelers will have to decide which of them they will like to bring back.
“We’ll just see what happens”, he told Chris Adamski. It was already a mild surprise that he was re-signed in 2018 following the completion of his rookie season, and another mild surprise when he actually made the team—or rather, when he played well enough to earn a spot on the team.
While he was obviously motivated to play better given the fact that his football career is at a crossroads, one might also wonder if it was new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar who was able to get more out of him, or at least more willing to give him the opportunity to move forward.
“They are both great coaches, hard-nosed coaches”, the lineman said in comparing Dunbar to John Mitchell, his position coach for his first four seasons. “Dunbar is just a little younger, and I would say that he relates to us a little bit more. But they are both great coaches”.
Mitchell remains on the coaching staff, but now holds only the title of assistant head coach and does not have any known participation with on-field training and practice. Yet he is the long-tenured member of the coaching staff, pre-dating Head Coach Mike Tomlin, who promoted him to defensive line coach/assistant head coach when he first arrived in 2007.
“Dunbar, I learned a lot from him this year”, McCullers said. Dunbar previously worked under Tomlin when the latter was the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings in 2006, but was most recently with Alabama at the college level. “He likes me as a player, he always encourages me to go out there and give it my all and be the player that I know I can be”.
While it’s hard for McCullers to crack the lineup behind starters like Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Javon Hargrave, all of whom had over five sacks this season, he knows that there is still room for improvement in his game, heading into season six.
“I’ve just got to keep building and try to get past that level they want me at”, he said. “I feel like I can get there; I just have to put in that work and get better”.
He recorded five tackles and one sack in 2018, playing a little over 100 snaps. He has 33 tackles and two and a half sacks in his five-year career.