Mike Tomlin Sees ‘No Definitive Structure’ In DeMarvin Leal’s Role Entering 2023 Season

The 2023 season will be a pivotal one for the Pittsburgh Steelers future of defender DeMarvin Leal, but for now — at least according to head coach Mike Tomlin — Leal’s role remains uncertain defensively.

Speaking with reporters Monday during the pre-draft press conference from the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side, Tomlin stated that he doesn’t have “great clarity” on Leal’s role and said that there’s no definitive structure with Leal as the Steelers sit here today.

“There’s a lot of variables in determining that: his level of readiness, his growth and development,” Tomlin stated to reporters, according to video via the Steelers official YouTube page. “…I’m open and expect him to be on another level, like I do with all guys. But I don’t know that I see it with great clarity as I sit here today. There’s still too many moving pieces.

“One of the major components of talent acquisition remains to be done in this offseason, be it the draft or remaining free agency and things of that nature. But make no mistake, he showed some things, particularly over the latter part of last year. It’s reasonable to expect him to build upon that. But no definitive structure to it as we sit here today.”

That’s been the issue with the Leal situation dating back to when he was selected out of Texas A&M in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Leal was drafted a tweener, something in-between an edge rusher and interior player. One year into his pro career and that hasn’t changed. Initially, the Steelers planned to bulk him up and did, getting his weight up over 300 pounds in the summer. In the preseason, he logged 91 snaps, all as a down lineman and over 26% of his snaps came in Pittsburgh’s base 3-4 defense. It was a similar story in Week 1, all 16 of his snaps with his hand down, though 15 of them came in sub-packages.

Despite playing under 200 total defensive snaps, by year’s end Leal ended up lining up all over the field under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. According to our charting, Leal lined up at six different positions: LDE, LDT, LOLB, RDT, ROLB, and even inside linebacker, the last a specialty off-ball blitz package put in for the Bills game, in which the Steelers ran three times.

Over his rookie year, 37.4% of his snaps were spent on his feet. Though still labeled as a defensive lineman, he wasn’t used like the others. Standing up, even occasionally dropping into coverage, and he was allergic to the Steelers’ base defense. Only 15.7% of his snaps came in Pittsburgh’s base 3-4/3-5 grouping. He was part of the 4-4 defense Pittsburgh leaned on over the final four weeks but even then, he worked further away from center at defensive end, not tackle.

While it’s extremely unlikely that the Steelers keep Leal as that base 3-4 defensive end, pushing him into that big EDGE role as the third outside linebacker behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith seems like a bit of a stretch too.

The role moving forward remains unclear, so it wasn’t all that much of a surprise to hear that from Tomlin. It falls in line with what Khan said at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in late February, stating that he wasn’t going to hinder Leal’s versatility.

“I think the great thing about DeMarvin is his versatility,” Khan said in February. “We’re not gonna try to do anything that’s gonna hinder his versatility. We like that he can go inside, outside and coach can utilize him in a lot of different places and I foresee that continuing.”

Still, with a major hole at OLB3 and some depth needed at defensive end behind Cameron Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi, figuring out what Leal’s role will be defensively remains a high priority.

It’s still uncertain though, at least right now, as Tomlin stated.

And it might remain unclear going into training camp.

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