Steelers training camp talkers: Critical year for the Steelers defensive line

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

All eyes are on Steve McLendon as the first new nose tackle the franchise has had since 2000. Ziggy Hood is in a contract year and Cameron Heyward looks to live up to his first round billing.

This isn't a franchise that's used to much fluctuation with its defensive line.

Former nose tackle Casey Hampton is still a free agent, and likely won't be in Latrobe as a player for the first time since 2000. Long gone are defensive end Aaron Smith and nose tackle Chris Hoke.

Instead, the Steelers have DE Ziggy Hood playing in a contract year, fellow first round pick Cameron Heyward playing to live up to his billing. But at the middle of it all is an undrafted gem, Steve McLendon.

Having shown flashes of high-end ability, particularly in a pass rushing capacity, McLendon inked a 3-year, $7.5 million extension off his restricted free agency tender this offseason. Big things are expected from the fifth-year pro from Troy.

It's odd that the undrafted veteran doesn't seem to be considered as much of a question mark as either of the two former first round picks (Hood and Heyward), especially when the oldest member of the team's defense, DE Brett Keisel, is still plugging away. How much Heyward will push Keisel for playing time will be a main headline when the Steelers begin training camp July 26.

Also, the depth at nose tackle will be an interesting competition. Lonnie Fangupo and controversial 2012 fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu will lock horns for the back-up spot. Add in Al Woods for depth at defensive end, the Steelers defensive line is a fiery mix of veteran experience, youthful talent, marquee draft picks and shoulder chips.

Maybe different will be better.

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