With the Steelers’ 2023 offseason underway following a disappointing season that came up just short of reaching the playoffs, it’s time to begin reloading, through the free agency process, through the draft, and perhaps even through trade.
This is now a young team on the offensive side of the ball, though one getting older on defense, and both sides could stand to be supplemented robustly, including in the trenches—either one. Changes have been made to the coaching staff, even if not all of the desired ones, as the roster continues to renew with the weeks ticking by.
These sorts of uncertainties are what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
Topic Statement: DeMarvin Leal will play at least a third of the defensive snaps in 2023.
Explanation: With at least two of the Steelers’ top defensive line reserves from last season unlikely to return in 2023 (Chris Wormley and Tyson Alualu), it could mean a sizeable increase in responsibility for DeMarvin Leal, the second-year former third-round draft pick who managed to log 175 snaps as a rookie (25 percent of the playing time for the game for which he was active) despite missing six games due to injury.
Leal played more last season than was expected, the general impression being that he would need to get a year under his belt, and a year in the weight room and with the nutritional staff, to get himself to where the Steelers would like him to be.
It’s telling that the Steelers didn’t even hesitate to play him as a rookie, though. They just threw him out there, even if they limited what they asked him to do. The logical progression from year one to year two is to continue to put him out there, only to expand his repertoire and what is asked of him.
It’s not as though he has much competition at defensive end. Right now, he is the top reserve behind Cameron Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi, and the odds of them adding some other prominent name are low. And they will probably be more active trying to be a rotational front this year, so that should afford Leal at least a one-third playing share.
Exactly what the Steelers see Leal as seems to be rather nebulous. He is somewhere between a 3-4 defensive end and outside linebacker, but not quite either. The result might be a greater specialization of his responsibilities.
With the prominence of the nickel defense, in addition, we should actually see a lot this year of rookie second-round pick Keeanu Benton, and perhaps Armon Watts if he makes the roster. Both are better suited, in terms of body type, to that role. In such a package, Leal might actually make more sense coming off the edge, but they’re not going to pull T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith off the field very often.