Want = a position the team could improve with a good draft pick.
Important Want = should improve rather than could.
Need = a missing starter.
This series looks at each position to evaluate the level of want and some of the prospects who might be available in those early rounds.
- Offensive Wants, Needs and Prospects: Offensive Tackle (as of January 12), Center (January 15), Guard (January 19), Running Back (January 16), Tight End (January 21), Quarterback (January 26), WR Types (January 30), and WR Prospects (February 1).
This may be the only position we can completely write off for the first few picks of Pittsburgh’s 2021 draft, despite the fact that this year’s experience proved how important it can be to have three competent DT’s on this defense, rather than just two.
When Javon Hargrave left after 2019 a lot of Steeler Nation commenced to the pulling of hair and rending of garments. “Woe is my team, for to lose it’s star Nose Tackle!” That met with little less than a full eye roll from the rest of the fan base. “Please. True NT’s are an all but extinct species, the team uses a three-DT look on less than a third of its defensive snaps, and the existing DT’s are more than able to handle that job.”
Enter 2020, where we saw that the eye roll crowd were mostly right, but only “mostly.” The number of snaps with three DT’s continued to be rare enough to call the 3-4 formation just one of many sub packages. And Tyson Alualu proved to be more than capable as a NT, despite being listed forever as a DE. Once he got hurt, however, the run defense went off a cliff even though a lot of us really like the potential of Pittsburgh’s upcoming DL prospects. Two star DT’s and a novice were not enough to do the job.
Thus we cannot eliminate NT as a complete nonfactor for the 2021 draft. It is, however, fair to say it is a Day 3 concern where the team might look for a bargain, and not a priority compared to almost anything else on the team. A legitimate Want, but no more than that.
Let’s start by going over the current players on the roster.
- Cam Heyward will be 32 during the 2021 season and continues to play as a full fledged star. He is listed at 6’5”, 295 lbs. – measurements that we will use as the measuring stick for everyone else. He was the Steelers Round 1 pick in 2011 and has emerged as both a team leader and favorite of Steeler Nation after spending his first three years getting little but grief from the fans. Consistent we are not. Cam Heyward signed an extension that will keep him in Pittsburgh through 2024.
- Stephon Tuitt will be turning 28, and is 6’6” and 303 lbs. That is more or less identical to Heyward, just as his performance touches on stardom as well. Tuitt may actually have the higher ceiling of the two, but he seems to get injured more often and to be the beta dog to Cam’s ultimate alpha. Tuitt was a Round 2 pick in 2014 who was widely considered a steal that only fell because of a foot injury. He will be a free agent in 2023.
- Tyson Alualu slightly squatter than the first two stars (6’3”, 304 lbs.), but just as athletic and only now playing his best football. He will be 34 next season after starting his career as the #10 overall selection by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Alualu has taken to the NT position like the proverbial duck to water, explaining to fans that it really isn’t about size so much as getting into the play just that fraction of a second faster. Innnnteresting… For those who care, Alualu is still listed on the roster as a DE, which pretty conclusively shows that the Steelers now play a 3-DT formation where “Nose” is just a geographic description. He is a 2021 free agent but likely to return due to some special rules for senior veterans.
- Isaiah Buggs, the Steelers’ Round 6 pick from 2019, is listed at 6’3”, 295 lbs. and will turn 24 next August. Exactly the same weight as Cam Heyward, but exactly the same height as Tyson Alualu. He has played like what he is: a young journeyman struggling to master his trade and thereby earn snaps over his peers in the same situation. His rookie deal expires just before the 2023 draft.
- Carlos Davis is the heftiest of the group at 6’2”, 320 lbs. He was a Round 7 pick in 2020 and will be turning 25. He started pushing for snaps during the end of his rookie season and has excited that part of the fan base that lives for spying out the steal who’s buried deep on the roster. His rookie deal expires in time for the 2024 draft.
- Henry Mondeaux is listed at 6’4”, 280 lbs., which makes him a good bit underweight in this era of colossi on the DL. He was a 2018 UDFA selected by Atlanta, who then wandered over to KC before finally sticking in the Burgh. He too has been battling for snaps, and earning them here and there. He will be a free agent in 2022.
- Chris Wormley, the only player listed on the roster as a NT, is 6’5”, 300 lbs. and was known as a pure, old fashioned, two gapping 3-4 DE before he arrived here; e., a wannabe Aaron Smith rather than Casey Hampton. He came over in a trade from Baltimore and has also had very limited snaps this year, played just above the line when he got them, and remains a work in progress. He will turn 28 next October and is about to be a free agent.
So to translate, Heyward and Tuitt are the two main stars and have both been signed to long term deals that will keep them here for the next few years. Tyson Alualu is a 2021 free agent, but very likely to return. After that the team has four young journeymen; all growing, competing hard, showing signs that they might be able to break through, and failing to actually do so yet. Wormley is a 2021 free agent, Mondeaux 2022, Buggs 2023, and Davis 2024.
What will the team be looking for in 2021? That analysis translates to, “Nothing but an irresistible steal or late round boom-or-bust guy.” For this reason the Big Board will arbitrarily place a Round 3 cap on all DT prospects. That won’t very many, however, as this particular class is very light at the top. There are no dead certain 1st-rounders, and only a few prospects who could challenge for the Top 50 on any all-teams board. For those who are wondering, the online sources tend to show a major cluster of talent in the 75-150 (Rounds 3-5) range.
THE DEFENSIVE LINE TARGETS
NOTE: These are listed in approximately the order I have them ranked from a Pittsburgh perspective, and then alphabetically for the ones that are ties. The designated grades are my take on the “all-teams” valuation. Move the top tier down into Round 3 and then start from there for how I plan to rank them on the actual Big Board. That big cluster of 3-5 talent will get Round 5-7 grades on our Board unless you all can make a good case for some other approach.
- DL Christian Barmore, Alabama (RS Sophomore). 6’5”, 310 lbs. He’s got the talent to be picked in Round 1, but hasn’t proven it on the field consistently, and still gets out-leveraged far too often. Many top notch flashes, but almost no games where he seemed to tilt the field. Production aside, he will get a lot of looks from the Steelers because he fits so well on paper. He has the native burst and quickness that Coach Butler prizes, and size enough to theoretically withstand double teams. He just hasn’t done it often enough, except for one particularly good day in the BCS championship win against Ohio State. Tom Mead’s gif-supported, late January scouting report ends in a fringe-1st grade consistent with many other pundits. ROUND 1-2 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- DL Jay Tufele, USC (RS Junior). 6’3”, 315 lbs. A well rounded, explosive player who would fits right in with the Heyward/Tuitt prototype if he was 2-3” taller. The main critique is a lack of consistency, which no one got to check on in 2020 because he opted out. When the light comes on he can dominate a game; so why doesn’t it flash more often? Tufele may well end up being the best IDL in the class, but the missing year of production makes that a much sketchier bet than you’d like. DAY 2 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- DT Daviyon Nixon, Iowa (RS Junior). 6’3”, 305 lbs. A classic 4-3 DT who only started for one season, but managed to show the burst and strength to create interior pass rush when he gets things right, and the basic athleticism to penetrate a gap in run support. Here is a nice December article on his struggles to overcome a learning disability. Here is a good looking early February scouting profile from a Patriots POV.DAY 2 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- DT Levi Onwuzurike, Washington (RS Senior). 6’2⅞”, 290 lbs. with 32½” arms and 10¼” hands One of the prospects who will suffer because he lost his 2020 season to Covid-19, Onwuzurike could have risen into a solid Round 2 prospect if he’d been able to build on his exceptional burst in a full 2020 run. Maybe even fringe-1st. He’s played both 0- and 1-tech, which is ideal, and shown both the ability to pressure QB’s up the middle while also holding up to collegiate level double teams. Measures a little small to hold up in the NFL, but times they are a’changin’. Maybe. DAY 2 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- DL Tommy Togiai, Ohio St. (Junior). 6’2”, 302 lbs. Built like a shorter but wider version of the current Steeler prototype for a Defensive Tackle. Excels as a 1-gap run stuffer who can provide occasional pressure, but takes some real projection to see as a 3-down starter who can do all the Steelers ask for. DAY 2 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- DL Marlon Tuipulotu, USC. (RS Junior). 6’1¾”, 308 lbs. with 32¾” arms and big 10⅜” hands. A squat, powerful bull rusher with good burst and an effective bull rush. Great motor too, which is always a major plus, but not a lot of sophistication. It takes some projection to see the starter upside. DAY 2 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- DT Alim McNeill, N. Car. St. (Junior). 6’2”, 315 lbs. The modern Pittsburgh defense looks for a specific type of Defensive Tackle rather than the old Lebeau-era division into DE’s and NT’s. McNeill fits the modern mold. It starts with the sort of motor that won’t leave him behind when Cam Heyward gets going. That’s pretty special. He also has very burst and quickness, which results in some inside pressure on the QB, combined with enough size and strength to hold up on run downs. The anchor could use some work for competing against NFL athletes, but that falls in the category of “predictable growth” in a young man headed into professional strength training. The traits are there, but he isn’t a finished product either physically or from the technical point of view. ROUND 3-4 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- DL Marvin Wilson, Fla. St. (Senior). 6’3½”, 319 lbs. A study in amazing physical tools held back by a series of technical errors that limit his production to flashes instead of consistent domination. Exactly the sort of player who might be irresistible if he falls into true bargain territory. ROUND 3-4 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- NT Bobby Brown II, Texas A&M (Junior). 6’4”, 315 lbs. A country strong run stuffer who can provide occasional pressure when he gets low enough to drive the Center back into the pocket, or to cut through an A-gap. He doesn’t have much sloppy weight but could use better aerobic training to avoid getting gassed too quickly. ROUND 4-5 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- DT Jaylen Twyman, Pitt (RS Junior). 6’2”, 290 lbs. Terrific motor combined with the ability to burst through the line and provide pressure up the middle, but a bit too small to hold up if asked to play immovable object as a Nose Tackle. Would rank higher for a team where he’d offer a better fit. ROUND 4-5 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- NT Tyler Shelvin, LSU (RS Junior). 6’3”, 362 lbs. The player you want if you’re after someone who will either hold his ground or reset the line of scrimmage backward by a yard. An ideal 2-gapper ranked higher on many other boards, but discounted here because he won’t provide pass rush. That severely limits the number of snaps that might be available on the current Pittsburgh defense. Has suffered from weight issues, and could easily become a better player if professional discipline can change some habits and improve his conditioning. ROUND 4-6 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- NT Tedarrell Slaton, Florida (Senior). 6’5”, 358 lbs. A two-down NT who gets low and often plays two steps into the backfield, but offers little more than that. He carries his size very well and is pretty darned solid from top to bottom – surprising when you look at the numbers. Would rank higher if he offered either a decent pass rush or more lateral mobility. ROUND 4-6 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- DT Darius Stills, W. Va. (Junior). 6’1”, 281 lbs. A situational inside pass rusher for a 4-3 team with great burst and a tremendous motor, but probably not a fit for what Pittsburgh could use. ROUND 4-6 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- DT Cory Durden, Fla. St. (RS Junior). 6’5”, 315 lbs. A one trick pony with a good trick: a dominant bull rush that’s gained him a lot of sacks, and helps him to hold up on running downs. Will benefit a lot from professional conditioning, which is what drops his stock. ROUND 4-6 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- DT Osa Odighizuwa, USC. (RS Junior). 6’2”, 280 lbs. with long 34⅛” arms. Roosevelt Nix was my favorite sleeper back in 2014. He’d been a dominating DT in college who won on pure burst, but just didn’t have the size to carry that game to the NFL. I thought he might convert to a Deeboesque OLB. Instead he ended up as a fine fullback and special teams ace. Osa Odighizuwa plays a similar game, with less achievement but at a higher level of competition. But he is a little bigger; the same weight at Henry Mondeaux but two inches shorter. His quickness looked unstoppable at times during the Senior Bowl, so he has that coveted pass rush upside. ROUND 4-6 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- DT LaBryan Ray, Alabama. (Senior). 6’5”, 302 lbs. A lesser version of Heyward and Tuitt who fights every bit as much and as hard in the run game, but lacks their pass rush upside. High floor, low ceiling, but with very good experience at a program that knows how to train IDL’s. ROUND 4-6 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- NT Jordan Williams, Clemson. (RS Junior). 6’4”, 310 lbs. A two-down NT who understands how to use his strength and leverage to clog the middle, including when he’s asked to cover two gaps. No real pass rush presence however. ROUND 4-6 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- NT Jordon Scott, Oregon. (Senior). 6’1”, 322 lbs. Will be 21 on draft day. Custom built to be a two-down NT, with very little upside for any other role. But there is upside in that role, particularly because he got results in college despite real technique problems with failure to use his natural leverage. Could mature into a real run stuffing force if someone can help him to really learn his craft. ROUND 4-6 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
- NT Khyiris Tonga, BYU. (Senior). 6’4”, 322 lbs. Shrink Big Dan McCullers by a few inches in height, and then add them back in width. In other words, he is a huge man who isn’t as stout as he should be due to leverage and quickness issues. Could be a dominant NT if coaching can fix those issues. Won’t if it can’t. ROUND 4-7 “ALL TEAMS” TALENT
Pittsburgh has clearly abandoned the sort of 350 lb. immovable monster who occupied the center of a classic, Dick Lebeau 3-4 defense. The recent stars – including the NT’s – all weigh between 295 and 305 lbs. and are notable more for a combination of long arms with the ability to shoot through gaps, than they are for their ability to shrug off double teams. Javon Hargrave was that size too for those who are wondering: 6’2”, 305 lbs.
That approach has worked exceptionally well so long as the team has a legitimate DT3 to pair with Heyward and Tuitt. Hargrave satisfied the requirements perfectly while he was here, and Alualu has done just as well in 2020. It works less well with two stars and a developing journeymen, proving that NT’s may be endangered but they aren’t extinct. That third guy matters.
So the big question is this: how does the team view its set of journeymen? Have any of them impressed the coaches as future starters who only need to fix a few things before they ‘get it’? If so, the level of Want drops to late Day 3 at the earliest, and will probably be addressed by signing Chris Wormley to a moderate contract as the DT4. If Wormley gets a better offer somewhere else, and the team doesn’t like any of it’s current depth, a pick in the 6-7 range would start to make a lot of sense; with Round 4 as the target zone for a higher quality target if the F.O. has reason to believe the 2022 situation will be more problematic than things appear at the moment.
As for the prospects, it isn’t a great class overall because so few of them have pass rush upside. The true DL junkies who want to replace Tuitt and Heyward before they age are not going to have a lot of options But there is a decent cluster of pure run stuffers who may well fall into Pittsburgh’s range later in Day 3. We would obviously prefer an all-around talent like Hargrave or Alualu, but he is not going to be available.