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State Of The Steelers Roster: The Defensive Line

Like I did last year on BTSC, I again plan to take a crack at breaking down the state of the Steelers roster heading into the free agency period and the build up to the NFL Draft. The objective is to take a look back at the most recent play by position, the ages and contract statuses of the relevant players at that position, and then make some reasonable evaluations of what the Steelers front office may do moving forward in the immediate and intermediate future. Let's start it out with a look at the unheralded but consistently impressive defensive line.


Player Age 2008 Cap Hit
2009 Cap Hit Years Remaining
Casey Hampton 31 (Sept) $ 5,378,043
$ 6,652,000 1
Aaron Smith 32 (Apr) $ 4,755,760
$ 3,950,000 3
Brett Keisel 30 (Sept) $ 3,151,340 $ 4,998,000 1
Chris Hoke 32 (Apr) $ 1,481,240 $ 1,675,000 3
Travis Kirschke 34 (Sept) $ 983,360 $ 1,300,000 1

There's more...quite a bit in fact...after the poll and the jump. Hold off on voting until you read on however. Seriously. Mike Tomlin disapproves of short-cuts. So should you.

Yikes. I'll take some Infusion Of Youth for $500, Alex.

In all actuality though, we're in pretty darn good shape in 2009. Provided the DL doesn't get ravaged by the injury bug any more so than it did early on in the 2008 season, this DL is a very safe bet to anchor another top 5 rush defense and again pave the way for special statistical seasons for our attackers on the outside - Wood and Deebo.

Let's see...Keisel's got a good year in him in 2009, regardless of his future after that. When healthy he's still got a motor that runs with the best of them and can disrupt some things in the passing game with his vertical leap and above average sense of timing. Aaron Smith again proved his truly special durability and value in 2008. Casey Hampton recovered from an abysmal start to his year after showing up to camp out of shape. By year's end, after coming back from injury and benefiting from some needed rest at the end of the season, Hampton again helped anchor one of the NFL's very best rush defenses - not to mention occupied blockers alongside Smith so that James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley could do their thing against single coverage most of the time.

Still, you can count on replacements being secured for Kirschke, Keisel, and as we'll debate later, even Hampton in this coming Free Agency period and in the Draft. And of course, there will be intense competition for one of the final 53 roster spots and practice squad spots amongst a crop of undrafted free agents and former practice squad journey men that our scouts feel are worth keeping an eye on. That will all play out as it will. But by looking at the top 5 on our depth chart above, it sure looks like the Steelers will use two of their top five picks on defensive linemen, be it at DT or DE.

2008 KEY DL RESERVES - Age; 2009 Cap Hit; Years Remaining; 2008 Cap Hit

Nick Eason - 28 years old; $678,000; 1 year remaining; $667,300

Orpheus Roye - 36 years old; 2009 Free Agent; $485,000

Reserves Analysis:

A special shout out to Nick Eason, who played in 15 games this year and did all that was asked of him, beginning with a highlight game in Week 1 against the Texans registering 4 tackles and 1/2 a sack. Obviously I don't see the Steelers extending Eason for multiple years, but who knows exactly what might happen to him in 2009 and 2010 more notably. It depends on a myriad factors, including but not limited to our Draft decisions this year; the development (or lack of) from 'project' type young'ns, what he'd be willing to sign for, etc. We'll see. After seemingly being frequently frustrated with Eason in 2007, I distinctly remember Eason doing much better in 2008, as well as reading several reports about how he had impressed his coaches with his progress this past year. So hopefully he'll be ready to go again in 2009 if called upon. And if that's all we can count on from him, I'd be more than content and satisfied with his tenure in Pittsburgh.

(When you're coming off a Super Bowl victory, it's so much easier to give a salute to guys like Eason than when your team came up short, is it not? Ha! Kidding aside, he was a contributor in many ways to this Super Bowl, even if those ways were smallish in magnitude. Eason played some ST as well don't forget. But yeah, point stands..much easier to be pleased with reserve contributions when you win!)

As for Roye? Good signing. Good risk-reward play by the Steelers brass. Surely some younger player will at least have the chance to knock him out of the mix in 2009, but if Roye decides to stay in shape and play again in 2009, he'll surely find an opportunity to do so on someone's depth chart, be it in Pittsburgh in an emergency role or elsewhere.

Not yet mentioned: Scott Paxson. A DT that the Steelers acquired undrafted out of Penn State. Hopefully a year with the Steelers strength and conditioning coaches has helped Paxson put on some serious weight and strength to that 290 pound frame of his that he entered the league in.

<aside>Wow, just realized that I referred to a 290 pound person as undersized. RIDICULOUS</aside>

There's no way to really know just yet, but what the organization thinks of Paxson could have some bearing on the ranking of the Steelers numerous contingency plans that they head to the war room with when the 2009 Draft is held in New York City a few months from now.


The following is an ordered list of DTs ranked by their 2008 cap hit. This is just me providing you with consolidated information to get a better idea of what kind of scratch we're talking about market value wise when evaluating the likelihood of certain Steelers players being extended. Their ages are included as well. There are no clear as day patterns here or anything like that - there's a wide mix of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd contract type players here and lots of different conclusions can be drawn.


  1. Dan Klecko (PHI) - $10,651,720 (28 years)
  2. Pat Williams (MIN) - $8,400,124 (36 years)
  3. Albert Haynesworth (TEN) - $7,250,003 (27 years)
  4. Cornelius Griffin (WAS) - $6,166,333 (32 years)
  5. Tommie Harris (CHI) - $6,031,862 (~26 years)
  6. Kris Jenkins (NYJ) - $5,900,000 (29.5 years)
  7. Marcus Stroud (BUF) - $ 5,668,706 (30.5 years)
  8. CASEY HAMPTON (PIT) - $ 5,378,043 (31.5 years)
  9. Rocky Bernard (SEA) - $ 5,066,626 (~30 years)
  10. Gerard Warren (OAK) - $5,000,000 (30.5 years)

I don't even want to know whyy Dan Klecko earned close to $10 in bonuses last year, so let's consider that an insane outlier and just look at the rest of the list. Pat Williams is getting paid because all he does is clog gaps. Just like Casey Hampton. Even at the tender age of 36 though. Williams signed that big deal with Minny when he was 33 years old, which would roughly be the same for Hampton when he becomes a free agent in 2010. What it's really going to come down to is two things: 1) Will Hampton accept a deal that continues to pay him in the top 10 at his position, rather than the top 5 or top 3 even? If the answer is a yes then it may just come down to 2) If he shows up to camp in shape. If he in like, really in shape and eager to pull his weight in a run at a repeat, then it very well could happen.


  1. Julius Peppers (CAR) - $ 14,137,500 (28 years)
  2. Aaron Schobel (BUF) - $ 8,723,555 (~31.5 years)
  3. John Abraham (ATL) - $ 8,501,920 (30.5 years)
  4. T-Sizzle Suggs (BAL) - $ 8,475,000 (26 years)
  5. Jared Allen (MIN) - $ 8,002,531 (~27 years)
  6. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (GB) - $ 7,726,828 (~31.5 years)
  7. Jason Taylor (WAS) - $ 7,500,000 (34.5 years)
  8. Luis Castillo (SDG) - $ 6,989,380 (25.5 years)
  9. Mario Williams (HOU) - $ 6,881,720 (24 years)
  10. Richard Seymour (Pats) - $ 6,836,720 (~29.5 years)
23rd. Aaron Smith (PIT) - $ 4,755,760
41st. Brett Keisel (PIT) - $ 3,151,340

Well, first of all, let me acknowledge that we're talking about a bunch of players playing in different schemes - some in the 3-4; some in the 4-3. Their perceived value as measured by contract$ is consequently different, with 4-3 DEs being the guys who get the kind of pub that the LaMarr Woodley's and James Harrison's of the 3-4s get.

Nevertheless, we can still all agree on these two things - Aaron Smith's a total bargain. He's infinitely more durable than Richard Seymour, who's basically considered the gold standard for 3-4 DEs. And he makes less money. And oh yeah, he's better than him too.

As for Brett Keisel. While valuable and an integral part of our defense in his peak years of 27-30, I don't think he's worth the coin to keep into his 30s given what we know about the Steelers scouting personnel and their ability to find outstanding talent. Hey, Brett Keisel was a 7th rounder himself don't forget.There's one possibility that hasn't yet really been discussed amongst Steelers Nation and that's this: it's not likely, but we may start seeing players taking less money, slightly that is, to go to teams with dynamic young coaches that are creating environments that players want to be a part of. Money talks, BS walks. I hear ya, believe me, but with the economic climate the way it is and with the uncertainty surrounding the Collective Bargaining Agreement's pending expiration...well, let's just say expecting recent years' trends to hold is not the safest of bets in my opinion.


  1. Let's count our lucky stars that DE Aaron Smith is locked up through the 2011 season, when he'll 35 years of age. I honestly wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Smith remains productive until he's closer to 40 than 35. He's so durable. 2007 was the first year of his career that he missed even one game after tearing his biceps against New England.
  2. What about Casey Hampton? Well, let me just say this first. I think that it's too frequently that we immediately discount the possibility of guys in their 30s coming off their second contract to get extensions. 'The Steelers just don't do that' is what's usually said. Well, that's true but not universally. There's another myth out there that the 'Steelers are cheap and don't pay their older players.' Also not true. Here are the Steelers league rank in terms of payroll the past five years: 2008: 6th; 2007: 9th : 2006: 23rd ; 2005: 10th ; 2004 22nd.

    The reality is the Steelers seem to be flexible with their spending limits. We've seen that with James Farrior, who signed a long term deal with substantial guarantees. And we're about to see it with James Harrison, who most would have said a year ago at this time was likely to be headed elsewhere after the 2009 season. Myself included. I'll hold off on fleshing this out, but let's just say I believe we're entering a four year window where the Steelers can legitimately achieve dynastic greatness. As in perhaps two more Super Bowls; and being a touch more conservative, let's just say the opportunity to host playoff games and make a run for the next four years as Ben enters his prime years, Santonio takes his game to the next level, Woodley and Deebo continue to reign terror on the league, our offensive line gets cleaned up, etc. etc. There's one area on the team where there's less certainty about 2-4 years down the road and that's the defensive line. We've got Aaron Smith for the run at greatness. I'd imagine that someone will get drafted on Day 1 this year to fill in for Brett Keisel in 2010, as well as a 2nd Day selection or two to compete for jobs with guys like Kirschke, Eason, Paxon.

  3. Shoring up the offensive line, finding a replacement for Keisel, and since so many of you want to see B-Mac let go, a CB to fill in for him, AND for DeShea as he gets well into his mid 30s..well, there's only so many picks we have. (This is why we need to re-up either B-Mac or Big Snack..period. Can't let both walk and expect to accomplish our other goals this Draft.) So as it relates to Big Snack Hampton, I'll stop here and just say that I hope we find a way to keep him around to help us achieve those lofty goals floating out there in our most optimistic of projections. Guys like Snack don't grow on trees. In fact, they don't even come around every year; or five years really. He's that good when healthy. And at just 31 years of age, I hope like hell we at least keep the door open for re-signing him late this summer. What I'd do? See what kind of shape he shows up to Latrobe in after a summer of basking in Super Bowl glory. He was embarrassed last camp. Show up ready to eat, figuratively speaking on the field, then sign the dude and let him retire a Steeler and make a run at Canton having worn just one jersey.


-MB (Blitz)-