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State of the Steelers' Roster: Defensive Line

Overview: Despite being an aging unit there is still quite a bit of talent on the defensive line and every starter plus the top two backups will all be back in 2008. Injuries should be only worry for this unit as otherwise they should be primed for another strong year.

Aaron Smith

Age and '07 Statistics: 31 years old (4/9/76), 31 tackles, 2.5 sacks in 11 games

Contract Status: Signed through 2011 with cap hits of $4.75 million (2008), $3.95 (2009), $6.6 million (2010), $6.1 million (2011)

2007 Analysis: The nine year veteran missed five games due to injuries, but prior to 2007, Smith hadn't missed a game since his rookie season. Smith was still on pace for a good year though before it was derailed by injuries. He was second on the defensive line with 18 quarterback pressures and his 2.5 sacks led all defensive linemen.

2008 Outlook: Despite his age, there's no reason to think that Smith won't return to full strength in 2008. He has been incredibly durable (seven straight seasons without missing a game prior to the injury) and very productive averaging over 4.5 sacks a year. I was surprised how long Smith's contract was and how much he'll be getting paid at ages 34 & 35, though. Did that jump out at anyone else?

We quickly learned what Smith means to this defense after his season
-ending injury

Casey Hampton

Age and '07 Statistics: 30 years old (9/3/77), 33 tackles, .5 sack in 15 games

Contract Status: signed through 2009 with a caps hits of $6.377 million (2008), and $5.652 million (2009)

2007 Analysis: Despite getting part of a sack for the first time in three years, Big Snack had the lowest amount of tackles since his rookie season (not counting 04 when he played in just 6 games). At his age, Hampton has turned into predominantly a two down player but when he's fresh he's still a load for any center to handle one-on-one. He was also elected to his fourth Pro Bowl.

Hampton's play at NT earned him a trip to Honolulu,
where he also auditioned for the kick-off returning
duties for Pittsburgh in '08.

2008 Outlook: Hampton may not be the player that he was a couple of years ago, but that's what'll happen when you get mauled by two guys 50-60 a week. He still clogs up the middle and is a well above average nose tackle. It'll be interesting to see what the Steelers decide to do with Hampton next off season when he has just one year remaining on his deal. He'll still be young enough to command decent money on the open market but old enough that the Steelers might balk at giving him another big contract.

Brett Keisel

Age and '07 Statistics: 29 years old (9/19/78), 39 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 passes defended in 16 games

Contract Status: signed through 2009 with cap hits of $4.073 million (2008) and $4.073 million (2009)

2007 Analysis: The "Keisel experiment" didn't go quite as well as expected in 2007 and he ended with the lowest sack total since he became a regular player. He seemed to struggle at the point of attack in the running game and playing full-time wore him down, affecting his pass rush in December and January. Ed Bouchette kept telling us all year that Keisel was leading the team in quarterback pressures and the Steelers' end of season report confirms that he did finish with 31, seven ahead of the second highest total posted by James Farrior.

2008 Outlook: Keisel will be the starting right end for the 3rd year in a row in 2008 and hopefully a few more of those pressures will turn into sacks. He should benefit with Smith being back in the lineup because that should free up Kirschke, or hopefully McBean, to spell him during games. His pressures fell off after Smith's injury as he was asked to play nearly the whole game. Keisel isn't a star or a player that many offenses will fear but I would expect a more productive 2008.

Ryan McBean

Age and '07 Statistics: 23 years old (4/23/84), no stats

Contract Status: Signed through 2008 with a cap hit of $370K

2007 Analysis McBean was on the practice squad or inactive for every game except the season finale. He got some limited action against the Ravens but didn't register a tackle. The only reason he wasn't on the practice squad the entire year is because of Aaron Smith's injury.

2008 Outlook When McBean was drafted he was considered a project with a high ceiling, so it's not too discouraging that he had trouble getting on the field during his rookie year. He's had to learn a new position (he was a DT at Oklahoma State) but hopefully a full season and off season with the coaching staff will prepare him to make at least some contribution in 2008. A realistic goal for McBean would be to break camp as the primary backup opposite of Kirshcke.

Travis Kirschke

Age and '07 Statistics: 33 years old (9/6/74), 26 tackles, 2 sacks in 16 games (4 starts)

Contract Status: Signed through 2009 with cap hits of $980K (2008) and $1.3 million (2009)

2007 Analysis: I'll be the first to say I wasn't a big fan of his resigning but, Kirschke filled in pretty admirably when Smith went down  totaling 14 tackles and both of his sacks in four starts. Even though he's better suited to be a guy in a defensive line rotation, it's good to know that if he has to make a fill-in start from time to time, he's capable.

2008 Outlook He'll fill the same role as in previous years with the Steelers, spelling both Kiesel and Smith. Part of his value is his ability to play both ends and be able to play the run and pass equally well. Even though, I have more respect for him after digging through the stats, hopefully he won't log any starts in 2008.

Chris Hoke

Age and '07 Statistics: 31 years old (4/6/76), 6 tackles, .5 sack in 16 games

Contract Status: Signed through 2010 with cap hits of $1.475 million (2008), $1.675 million (2009), $1.875 million (2010)

2007 Analysis: Hoke played sparingly in all 16 games and does a pretty good job when giving Hampton a breather. Hoke doesn't do anything especially well but doesn't have an area that gets exploited either.

2008 Outlook: Hoke's a reliable player that the Steelers need 10-15 snaps from a game, mostly on third downs. He's not great at rushing the passer but he's better than Hampton. He's done a good job in the past when they need him to fill in if Big Snack goes down.

Nick Eason: I'm not going to spend too much time on Eason. Even though he's relatively young (27), he basically played himself out of a job after Smith went down. Eason started the first game that Smith was out but Kirschke took over and got the rest of the starts. When Kirschke was signed to an extension it signaled the end of Eason's run in Pittsburgh.

Needs: Considering that the only guy in the unit who won't be at least 30 years old by seasons end, is McBean it's pretty clear that they need an infusion of youth. I wouldn't mind seeing an early pick used somewhere in the DL, as well as another late round flyer on a guy like McBean.