We continue our perusal of the Steeler roster and offseason needs with a look at the defensive ends. On the left side of the line, Pittsburgh goes two deep with Aaron Smith and Rodney Bailey. Smith, for his part, had a rather surprising Pro Bowl season in 2005, but wasn't as productive in this past season. Bailey is an adequate backup, but isn't a guy who Pittsburgh would want taking a majority of the snaps.
On the right side, Pittsburgh's got three guys on the roster - starter Brett Keisel, Travis Kirschke, and Shaun Nua. Keisel signed a four year contract during the 2006 offseason, but didn't have a stellar year in his first season as a starter. With Aaron Smith entering his ninth season in the league, and Keisel not developing into the every down player the Steelers hoped he could be, Pittsburgh's actually in a position of need at defensive end.
It's not so much that the guys currently on the roster aren't any good - they're fine, solid players. But there aren't any difference makers in the group, and you have to think Dick LeBeau would like to get more from his ends in the upcoming season.
Assessing the Steelers needs on defense, though, is more complicated than the offensive analysis, because we don't know for sure which long-term direction Mike Tomlin wants to go. We know he's committed to the 3-4 in the short-term, but does he intend for the Steelers to develop over time into a 4-3 cover two defense? We really don't have any idea, though we'll get some clues in this year's draft.
The direction Tomlin wants to go will certainly affect how this year's roster is constructed, as well as how the team drafts. If Tomlin intends for Pittsburgh to move soon to a 4-3 base, the personnel required will be different from that which he'd need to stick with and upgrade the 3-4. One free agent you might see Pittsburgh make a run at is Justin Smith, a Cincinnati Bengal who's hitting the market as an unrestricted free agent. I do think Pittsburgh will look long and hard at the defensive ends in this year's draft class, as well. Gaines Adams and Adam Carriker both seem like guys Pittsburgh will give close consideration.
Steeler fans have been spoiled by strong production along the defensive line for years now, but the team is moving into a transition phase where it's time to look closely at the future.