As part of the offseason listicle cycle, Bleacher Report is naming off each roster’s “best-kept secret” for the 2023 season. Underrated and overlooked names who might play key roles for their squad this fall. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, that honor went to DL DeMarvin Leal with author Alex Ballentine writing:
“The most important thing he did in his rookie season was prove that he could get on the field. He did that by working his way back into the lineup after the injury, earning another start by Week 17 and playing over 50 percent of the snaps in that game.
Cameron Heyward is 34 years old. Larry Ogunjobi will be 29 this season and has an out in his contract after this year. The Steelers have to replenish their depth in the trenches and Leal could pair with second-round draft pick Keeanu Benton to form a new nucleus on the inside.
Leal didn’t register a sack in 2022 but did bat down three passes and notched a few hurries. A full season with good health should change that in 2023.”
Leal was the Steelers’ third round pick in 2022, impressing DL Coach Karl Dunbar after attending his Texas A&M Pro Day. A tweener at 280 pounds, the Steelers bulked him up for the summer, getting him closer to 300 pounds, and Leal showed flashes of his athleticism and pass rush chops in the summer. Here’s the post-camp report we wrote on him:
“The best thing I saw out of him was retaining quickness and pass rush juice despite adding roughly 20 pounds. He explodes off the ball and his hand use is impressive, winning as a pass rush in a ton of ways. Cross chops, rips, spins, swims, he’s able to swing moves together, too. Leal is an impressive athlete in space and chased the ball hard, once running with Anthony McFarland 50 yards to the end zone to finish one rep (McFarland wasn’t full jets but Leal still impressed with his effort). I’m not sure where he’s at with his run defense, my primary concern with him coming out, but he’s on a positive track. He was healthy and available and worked every day, not something I want to overlook or take for granted for a rookie.”
But the plan with him quickly changed. After T.J. Watt went down with a partially torn pectoral muscle in Week One, Leal dropped weight and moved to more of a hybrid role, seeing time as a big EDGE rusher while logging some snaps as an interior defensive linemen. According to our charting, here’s the number of snaps Leal played sorted by ones with his hand down versus ones with his hand up.
Hand Down: 110
Stand Up: 69
A solid mix but more hand down snaps than on his feet, which is a little surprising given the switch to play outside linebacker early in the season. But it’s important to remember Leal also missed time while Watt was unavailable, as Ballentine mentions Leal tore his meniscus and spent time on IR, and when Watt returned, Leal saw more snaps along the defensive line.
His overall play was inoffensive but far from impactful. While athletic with a hot motor, Leal lacks a go-to pass rush move and was unproductive in that role. Based again on our charting, he registered just two pressures all season, one per every 46 rushes, a terrible number that must improve in 2023. There’s still always been questions about his run defense too.
In fairness to him, much was thrown at him his rookie year. The position change. The weight fluctuation. The injury. Along with all the normal challenges of being a rookie.
His role this season still remains unclear. Pittsburgh is intent on playing fourth-round pick Nick Herbig as an OLB to some degree though they may quickly bail on the plan if they realize it’s not working. Leal could still serve as depth on the outside or he could again add weight and be part of the team’s rotational pass rush depth in nickel packages. Right now, the Steelers even seem unsure about what to do with him and we may not get a clearer answer until the summer when training camp begins.
Given his light NFL resume, choosing Leal doesn’t seem like the best selection for the Steelers. It’s more projection than anything based off production. Center Mason Cole, running back Jaylen Warren, and cornerback Levi Wallace all would’ve been better choses than Leal.
Around the AFC North, Cleveland Browns’ center Ethan Pocic was named their best secret, LB Germaine Pratt for Cincinnati, and OT Morgan Moses for Baltimore. All rock-solid choices.