Steelers 2014 Roster Projections: Defensive ends

Karl Walter

Cameron Heyward is clearly the team's top end. Behind him, though, the Steelers' defensive line depth is a question mark heading into 2014.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have 21 players who will be unrestricted free agents when their currents contracts expire March 21, so management has quite a few decisions to make before the roster is set.

Here is a position-by-position look at the current players and what could occur during the upcoming months. This eighth story looks at the defensive ends.

PITTSBURGH -- The defensive line had two former No. 1 picks, and thanks to the play of 2011 first-rounder Cameron Heyward the Steelers have at least one solidified end spot. Heyward didn't open the season as a starter. He was the third end behind starters Ziggy Hood, the club's 2009 first-round pick, and 12-year NFL veteran Brett Keisel. But Heyward clearly finished as the top end.

Heyward started the final 13 games and tallied 59 tackles with 35 solo stops, five sacks and seven pass breakups. He is scheduled to make $1,289,322 this season and will become an unrestricted free agent in 2015 if the Steelers elect to not enact a club option for a fifth year (odds of that happening are low, and the team must make that decision this spring). He's just another player that the Steelers must look to re-sign to an extension sometime soon.

Hood and Keisel are unrestricted free agents this season, so decisions have to be made on both. This is an old argument made difficult because Hood is such a hard worker and likable guy. He's the strongest player on the team, and he has played in all 16 games during each of his five NFL seasons. Hood also had 46 starts in the past four years, but he hasn't provided much of a return for the Steelers. He has 11.5 sacks in five seasons, seven pass breakups and no forced fumbles. In other words, he hasn't made many plays.

Some believe that Hood should be re-signed and moved to nose tackle, and he certainly shouldn't be a big-ticket free agent signing. Keisel is another story. A former seventh-round NFL Draft pick in 2002, Keisel played five games as a rookie and none the next season due to an injury. He played extensively on special teams (kick coverage) the next two season and started all 16 games in 2006-07. Injuries have been a factor ever since.

Keisel, who would make at least $955,000 in 2014 as a double-digit veteran, likely would get more money if the Steelers re-sign him. While his production has not waned, he has had trouble staying on the field. Keisel missed six games in 2008, one in 2009, five in 2010, two in 2011 and four this past season. He played all 16 games in 2012. He was a Pro Bowl selection in 2010.

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