Ever since the Pittsburgh Steelers watched the contract of Casey Hampton expire when the 2013 NFL year officially began, they have been trying to figure out how to fill the immense void he left behind.
Steve McLendon is expected to take over for Hampton, and could very well uphold the standard in Hampton's place. Unfortunately, McLendon's promotion only displaced the issue with Hampton's absence to second-string nose tackle. For the past couple seasons, the Steelers were able to depend on McLendon and Chris Hoke to maintain the pain on offensive linemen when Hampton wasn't on the field. Now, only question marks fill out the depth chart behind McLendon.
The first assumption points to 2012's fourth-round draft pick Alameda Ta'amu. Unfortunately, Ta'amu struggled through camp last season like it was a walk to Wal-Mart, and then had his infamous alcohol-inspired vehicular incident mid-season. The team managed to hang on to him, despite releasing him at one point afterward, in hopes he would grow given a second go at training camp; however, he will need to exhibit significant improvement if he wants to remain with the team.
If Ta'amu can't lock down the second NT spot, the next presumable candidate would be either of the two remaining nose tackles on the roster - undrafted rookie Omar Hunter and one-time Steelers draft target, Hebron Fangupo, who the team signed away from the Seattle Seahawks prior to the last game of last season. Each have a relatively high ceiling for potential, however few first year players make significant strides in learning coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense while producing simultaneously. Either may be able to earn a practice squad spot - as could Ta'amu - but neither Hunter or Fangupo have Ta'amu's advantage of having been in the system for a full year.
Ta'amu may have an edge on the other nose tackles, but he has two other names to worry about.
Al Woods spent significant time during Pittsburgh's OTA sessions at nose tackle with the second-team defense. While his effectiveness at tackle has yet to be seen until helmets and pads go on in Latrobe, the team is preparing him for the snaps which will count in July and August. Every snap defensive end Woods takes at tackle, is one less chance for Ta'amu, Fangupo or Hunter to prove their own respective worth. Making it doubly difficult for the young NTs, is the fact Woods would be two-timing as an end, also. Last season, he was Ziggy Hood's primary reserve at left end, as Cameron Heyward understudied Keisel.
Woods flexibility might solidify his seat on the bus for 2013, he would only be the fifth of what is shaping up to be a six-man defensive line. However, if he can prove more worthy to backup McLendon than any of the tackles under contract, the team may find themselves better suited to keep an extra end as the sixth man, in the form of 2013 seventh-round rookie Nicholas Williams.
Williams has reportedly been exuding a physical maturity not often seen from newbies, with slight glimpses of "grown man strength" - something starting left end Hood has often failed to show himself. Woods versatility would allow the team to keep Williams on the 53-man final roster, but most likely inactive on gamedays. Remaining on the roster would ensure more practice snaps than a practice squad spot.
Hampton departure sparked curiosity, and the final question will be posed by the play of Ta'amu, Fangupo and Hunter; but in the end, it may be finally answered by Woods and Williams. Brett Keisel will have plenty of mentoring to do this off-season.