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DT Daniel McCullers: 2014 Draft Grade Retrospective

Daniel McCullers hitting Aaron Rodgers

It’s said a draft class can’t be fully graded until at least three years after the picks are made. That’s why after submitting grades for every Pittsburgh Steelers pick made in 2021, I began going back through and grading previous Steeler draft classes beginning with 2018. Today continues the fifth class in that exercise, with the second of the Steelers’ two sixth-round picks in the 2014 NFL Draft: Daniel McCullers, a defensive tackle out of Tennessee.

This exercise follows the six viewpoints (listed below) for examining and re-grading a pick. Each of the first five viewpoints gets examined and assigned a letter grade, before taking that analysis and combining it into a final letter grade. Those five viewpoints comprise much of what goes into the draft grades consumed by so many every year after the draft.

Steelers’ Career: What did the player contribute to the team that drafted him?
NFL Career: Did the player make the pick look better in hindsight after leaving Pittsburgh?
Pick Value: Did the player outperform his draft slot? Did he fail to live up to the pick used on him?
Positional Value: Was the player the best player remaining at his specific position in the draft?
Other Options: Did any players go during the next round that were better selections?
Overall Grade: A final mark to denote whether the selection was an overall positive one, or one better spent elsewhere.

Each factor in a retrospective doesn’t apply evenly to every pick made; consider the grades weighted. For example, to return a high grade in pick value, a first-round pick should have a long and impactful career, while a later-round pick needs only a couple seasons as a back-up or modest contributor to be worth the selection used on him.

Some factors are universal, though. Whether picked first overall or 259th, there will always be other options on the board to compare the player to, and steals and reaches can come from any place in the draft.

Round 6, Pick 39: Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee

STEELERS CAREER: C

The Pittsburgh Steelers owned the final selection in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Two of the team’s prior three selections in the fifth and sixth rounds had come on defense as depth additions, but it was McCullers who ended up earning a main roster spot and building a career on the Steelers’ defense.

That career would span six seasons with the franchise, as the hulking 6’7”, 352-pound defensive tackle gave the Steelers someone who could fill Casey Hampton’s nose tackle role on an as-needed basis. His size and performance kept him around despite continuous competition for a roster spot: Pittsburgh drafted a defensive tackle in four of the five subsequent drafts, but none moved Big Dan off a roster spot.

While his career lasted longer than his rookie contract, McCullers was never a main player for the team. Beginning with a rookie season of nine games with one start and 63 snaps played, McCullers had only two tackles. He was unable to beat out Steve McClendon and then Javon Hargrave for starts but kept control of the backup job much of his career, playing between 12-16 games and 105-182 snaps four of his next five seasons.

McCullers peaked in 2016, one of his two seasons playing a full 16 games. That regular season over a career-high 182 snaps, McCullers had 17 tackles, two for a loss, and five quarterback hits. He also played a career-high 74 snaps on special teams. Over six seasons and 73 regular season contests in Pittsburgh, McCullers had 41 tackles, four for a loss, and nine quarterback hits as a backup nose tackle.

NFL CAREER: D-

McCullers’ career with the Steelers did not end by the team’s choice. Even when Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis, and Chris Wormley combined to force McCullers off the active roster in 2020, the Steelers retained him on their practice squad at the start of the season. He stayed there for the early part of the year, until the Chicago Bears poached him after the opening weeks.

McCullers spent the rest of the season bouncing between the Bears’ active roster and practice squad. He appeared in three total games for Chicago, playing 86 snaps and making three tackles. The Bears did not retain him after the season, and McCullers remains a free agent. His most recent contact with the league was a workout with the Baltimore Ravens two months ago.

PICK VALUE: B

McCullers was the final player taken before the seventh round. The 215th overall pick failing to make the main roster wouldn’t surprise anybody as a rookie or in subsequent seasons. Instead McCullers not only made the team, but out-performed players the Steelers brought in to remain one of the team’s top backup options at defensive tackle for over a half-decade.

That’s pretty strong play for a pick range where only a select few make it through the entirety of their rookie contracts. McCullers never came close to starting, but he never needed to. Pittsburgh needed a player who could step in and be a massive nose tackle, and McCullers did that for six seasons.

POSITIONAL VALUE: D+

If a single position had a lot of value left for the final round in 2014 (plus the last pick before the final round), it was defensive tackle. McCullers has company among his position group among players taken so late, as three of the other seven players with the most games played from so late a draft slot are fellow defensive tackles.

Shamar Stephen (220th, Minnesota) and Shelby Harris (235th, Oakland) are the two with the most high-profile careers to date. Each began as a backup who didn’t get on the field consistently over their first few seasons. Stephen broke into the lineup first, starting every game for Minnesota in 2016 with a career-high 39 tackles. He lost his starting spot and spent a year in Seattle, but quickly returned to the Vikings in 2019 and started all but one game for them the last two years.

Stephen is now in Denver, and fighting for a spot alongside or backing up the current top defensive tackle from the last round of 2014: Shelby Harris. Selected 235th by Oakland, Harris never made an impact with the Raiders and spent the entire 2016 season without a home on an active roster. The Broncos rescued Harris, and paved the way for a 5.5-sack breakout as a backup on the team’s line in 2017.

After failing to start a game in 2018, Harris earned a full-time starting spot in 2019, starting all 27 games he has played the last two seasons. Denver just signed him to a three-year, $27 million contract to stay at that position.

Trailing behind those two is Beau Allen, drafted 224th by Philadelphia. Allen has been a backup every season to date, like McCullers, but with over 340 snaps in four of his six seasons. Not evert defensive tackle taken so late panned out, but most of them did. Even as a successful pick so late, Pittsburgh had a lot of better options left in a small pool when they selected McCullers.

OTHER OPTIONS: C+

Exactly four players taken over the next 32 picks after McCullers have appeared in more NFL games than he has. They’re also four of the only players who could be argued as better options in retrospect.

The earliest of names is T.J. Carrie, making yet another appearance in these retrospectives as a comparison to Steeler picks. The corner selected 219th overall by Oakland is still defending in the NFL, now with Indianapolis, and has over 50 starts and an interception in all but one season. One pick after Carrie went Stephen to Minnesota, and four picks later Beau Allen went to Philadelphia. All the way down at 246th overall is Charles Leno Jr., who like Carrie has topped 100 career games. Leno is the only seventh-rounder from this class to make a Pro Bowl, and has started all 16 games the last five seasons.

Two players played less games than McCullers, but are two of the best who went on all of Day 3 in 2014. One is Harris, and the other is Andre Hal, who began the seventh round at 216th overall to Houston. Hal started three years as the Texans’ safety and had between 2-4 interceptions each of his final four years. Hal walked away from the game after his fifth season in 2018. Pittsburgh shouldn’t be unhappy with its selection, but there were names that offered an even higher ceiling, most notably McCullers’ fellow DTs, Leno, and Hal.

OVERALL GRADE: B-

It’s all about value this late in the draft, and finding players out of a crowded group of eventual wash-outs that are the ones good enough to stick in the NFL and contribute in some capacity. Pittsburgh found that in McCullers, a defensive tackle who stuck around longer on the team’s roster than all but one of his fellow 2014 picks (not counting Ryan Shazier). Not only that, McCullers was around longer than all but one pick in 2015’s class (Bud Dupree), and the entirety of the 2016 class.

His contributions were small, never reaching 200 snaps in a season, but there’s a reason McCullers kept winning the backup spot year after year. He was what the Steelers needed in certain situations in the center of the line, and he played his part well.

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