Putting together a team is by no means solely nor primarily about what you are able to add to the group year in and year out. More than anything, it’s about the pieces that you are able to keep together for a period of years, acquiring talent and giving them the structure to develop together into a cohesive unit.
By and large, the Pittsburgh Steelers do this better than most, and they return among the most snaps from the 2019 season as they head into this year, but they have still lost some significant players from a year ago, some of whom have been with the team for a while, like Ramon Foster, Javon Hargrave, Mark Barron, Anthony Chickillo, and others.
Now that we’ve introduced you to all of the new faces that the Steelers have added to the team since the end of last season, it’s time to take stock of who is gone since then, and what their departure—whether by the team’s will or not—will impact their success or failure in 2020 and beyond.
Player: DT Javon Hargrave
Years Played: 4 (4 in Pittsburgh)
Snaps Played: 680 (2082 career)
The Steelers are not necessarily a team that loses out on a lot of their own homegrown talent. By and large, their system is predicated upon drafting and developing and then retaining talent. Sometimes players do price themselves out of Pittsburgh, however, as Javon Hargrave did, in a scenario that isn’t always purely about salary and the salary cap.
The Steelers originally drafted Hargrave in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, taking him out of a small school, something that they rarely do in the first two days of the draft. But he became an instant starter at nose tackle following Steve McLendon’s free agency departure, and went on to average more than 500 snaps per season.
Of course, ‘Grave Digger’ wasn’t just a nose tackle by any means. He played extensively in the Steelers’ nickel defense as well, whether alongside Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt or working in tandem as a second-team unit with Tyson Alualu or Daniel McCullers, as the situation called for it.
He seemingly got better with each passing year, and really blossomed over the last two. He posted six and a half sacks in 2018, for example, a career high. Last season, he totaled 60 tackles, which is a significant number for his position, even taking into consideration the number of Tuitt’s snaps that he absorbed after his injury.
But with Heyward and Tuitt already paid, and the obvious fact that a 4-3 team could afford to play him more, and thus pay him more, Hargrave ended up shipping out east, staying in the state and signing a three-year, $39 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Needless to say, that’s far more than the Steelers could have paid him. They did not sign or draft a defensive tackle to replace him. Instead, they acquired Chris Wormley via trade, and appear set to move Alualu inside to take over as the primary nose.
They are going to lose quite a bit in terms of the pass rush, but both Wormley and Alualu are talented run defenders. They are not as explosive and probably won’t produce the same level of negative run plays or tackles for loss, but Hargrave’s absence should not translate to a significant depreciation in the run defense, while his loss in the pass rush can be made up through the creativity of Keith Butler’s blitzing schemes—not to mention having Tuitt back healthy.