2023 NFL Draft

Heitritter: Pittsburgh Should Prioritize Nose Tackle Over Defensive End In The Draft

Shoring up the offensive and defensive lines was a big priority for the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason. The team got things going down the stretch in 2022 in terms of running the ball and stopping the run after struggling at the beginning of the season. GM Omar Khan and Assistant GM Andy Weidl didn’t want to leave that success up to chance in 2023 by running it back with the same group — at least on the offensive side of the football.

The Steelers have signed OGs Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo in free agency, giving the team a better starter over LG Kevin Dotson as well as improving depth along the interior of the OL. In regard to addressing the defensive line, Pittsburgh re-signed Larry Ogunjobi to a three-year deal worth $28.75 million, locking him as a starter for at least the 2023 season. However, DL Chris Wormley and Tyson Alualu remain free agents and the team has little proven production behind Ogunjobi and Cameron Heyward. That makes the DL a focal point that Pittsburgh needs to address in the draft.

Still, should the Steelers prioritize drafting a base DE to play the 3-technique/4i or more of a nose-tackle type to play in the middle of the base defense? Before the Ogunjobi re-signing, I would’ve had said that DE would be more of a need given the likelihood of playing more snaps in sub-packages as well as adding another young, developmental player to groom alongside Heyward.

However, my perception on the situation has changed due to several factors. First, Ogunjobi doesn’t best project as a nose tackle in Pittsburgh’s scheme but more as a 3-tech/4i that can rush the passer and play against the run in the base defense as well as in sub-packages. Ogunjobi logged 636 defensive snaps (60%) in 2022, per Pro Football Reference, despite playing banged up for most of the season. Given the contract and his status as a starter, Ogunjobi appears set opposite Heyward in the team’s nickel defense as the two-down defensive linemen as well as the other 3-4 base DE.

While Pittsburgh could draft another 3-4 DE, like Clemson’s Bryan Bresee, to rotate with Ogunjobi and Heyward, they still have Isaiahh Loudermilk and DeMarvin Leal as young, developmental pieces that can play base DE behind the starters. At nose tackle, however, the depth chart is thin with Montravius Adams and Jonathan Marshall the only real names holding down the middle at this stage of the offseason.

While Marshall has promise and Adams has flashed at times, neither should be considered a high-end starting option, given where Pittsburgh wants to be in talent and depth along both lines of scrimmage. Investing an early Day-Two pick in a quality nose tackle that can push Adams for the starting job Day 1 may be a better allocation of resources than drafting a rotational player, one that may start in 2024 should the team move on from Ogunjobi but may have a tough time getting heavy snaps as a rookie.

There are several good options in the draft that could fit the bill at NT for Pittsburgh. Michigan’s Mazi Smith appears to be high on Pittsburgh’s radar given its interest in him during his Pro Day. His size/athletic profile would give Pittsburgh a quality run stuffer with pass-rush upside. The same could be said for Baylor’s Siaki Ika, Texas’ Keondre Coburn, and South Carolina’s Zacch Pickens.

Pittsburgh could also opt to take a versatile DL with the measurables to play base DE but have them start out at nose and push Adams for a starting job. Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton played as the Badgers’ NT but has the frame and athleticism to play outside too. The same could be said for Florida’s Gervon Dexter, who played some nose tackle for the Gators as well as a base DE at 3-tech/4i.

Regardless of who the player is or in what round he is drafted, for Pittsburgh’s defensive line to follow the same trend it has implemented with the offensive line, it needs to have capable starters at every position. This doesn’t mean the Steelers can’t take a base DE in the draft. But based on the state of the roster as we sit here today, addressing NT over DE should be the move.

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