The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2016 NFL Draft knowing that they needed to address the nose tackle position after losing Steve McLendon in free agency. A number of us even had the team targeting Andrew Billings as early as the first round.
They ended up holding out until the third round, where they were able to uncover the small school product Javon Hargrave, whom the Steelers extensively vetted, a process that included sending no less than entourage than Joe Greene himself.
Hargrave immediately became the starter over Daniel McCullers, but he of course struggled to see a lot of playing time due to his position. Still, he was fairly productive when he was on the field. He produced two sacks in each of his first two seasons, but he took a major step forward in year three.
That included posting six and a half sacks, which is notably more than his two-season total. He also registered 49 tackles, blowing past his previous career-high of 32, and is an accurate indication of his improvement in the run game, specifically his ability to finish plays and to get off blocks.
“I feel like I came a long way since my first two years”, he told the Steelers’ website recently. “I made strides, but that is just the league. You are either getting better or you are getting worse. You have to get better. I feel like I grew up a little, took advantage of some of my opportunities this year. I made a few more plays than I did before”.
He made enough plays that it even drew the attention of Pro Football Focus, who put the spotlight on him and suggested that he has the potential to quickly develop into one of the league’s top interior pass rushers.
“Just getting older and knowing what is coming for me, what is coming in the league” is what he credited for that growth. “There is a lot more behind the walls than what everybody sees. It’s the ups and downs of the NFL that everyone doesn’t see. Seeing that my first few years, taking advantage and growing from it, was really important”.
This was also the first season under new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. The entire defensive line had success this year, with Stephon Tuitt having a second half surge that saw him finish with five and a half sacks. Cameron Heyward also posted eight sacks, the second-highest total of his career.
Will Hargrave’s improvement result in him seeing more playing time next season. The Steelers did experiment with some 3-3-5 defensive alignments late in the year that would allow that to be possible.