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Overhauling the Steelers defensive line for 2014

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The Steelers like to carry six defensive linemen: two nose tackles, three defensive ends, and a mulipurpose NT/DE. After 2013 they lost two defensive ends and the swing back-up. To replace those losses, the Steelers added Cam Thomas and passed on Alex Carrington.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of the 2013 season, the Steelers defensive line looked like this:

  • NT (Starter): Steve McLendon
  • NT (Backup): Hebron Fangupo
  • DE (Starter): Brett Keisel
  • DE (Starter): Ziggy Hood
  • DE (Rotation): Cam Heyward
  • NT/DE (Backup): Al Woods

McLendon had the impossible job of replacing Casey Hampton, but the Steelers brass were confident enough about his abilities to give him a multi-year deal. Fans were willing to buy in, partly because we wanted that to be true.

Fangupo was a journeyman that beat out Alameda Ta'amu (who was promptly snatched away by Arizona). Fangupo looked like a quality addition for depth.

Keisel was the old man nearing the end of his distinguished career. He figured to be good for one more, but had serious questions about whether he could last into 2014.

Hood had been a quality teammate and a reliable contributor, but he'd never blossomed into the player the team hoped for as the 32nd overall pick in 2009. A few good games toward the end of 2012 provided reason for hope, however.

Heyward was the young "comer" slated to replace Keisel in 2014. He hadn't blossomed either, but in fewer snaps than Ziggy had showed the same level of promise. We had hope for him as well.

Woods was our secret safety blanket. He was a refugee from teams that failed to develop his talent, but our glorious Steelers had succeeded at the task. We saw him as a very solid backup at both NT and DE, and proof that the team had this all in hand.

In the 2013 draft, the Steelers obtained two longshot, long-term developmental prospects:

  • 7th Round Pick Nick Williams: From tiny Samford University in Alabama.
  • UDFA Brian Arnfelt: From Northwestern.

It wasn't a shock when Arnfelt and Williams didn't make the 2013 team (Williams was placed on injured reserve and Arnfelt was signed to the practice squad after his release). Rookie linemen won't play without at least a season under defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell. Heyward hadn't blossomed in his first two years; Hood hadn't blossomed in his first four; and even Aaron Smith didn't hit his stride until Year 3. So the most anyone hoped for was a possible contributor in 2014 who could begin to compete in a journeyman way in 2015.

Brian Arnfelt managed to be a camp darling nevertheless. We liked him so much that BTSC hummed with rumors that he might actually see rookie playing time. But no - he was stashed on the practice squad just like his predecessors.

Nick Williams was a draft darling despite being a 7th rounder because he is a super-athletic physical specimen. Coach Mitchell all but drooled over him at the post-draft press conference. He had only two or three years of football under his belt, so we knew he'd be a project, but the upside seemed worth it since even our 1st Rounders have a 3-year learning curve. When he suffered a kneecap injury early in training camp we expected the normal injury settlement and "Thanks for all the fish" speech, but the Steelers placed him on IR instead. BTSC took that as a loud statement about how much he'd impressed the coaches during those first few weeks. Like Arnfelt we expected him to compete for backup snaps in 2014, and maybe for a journeyman's contributing role in 2015.

Then came the 2013 season, where we found out McLendon was what we hoped but not what we dreamed; i.e., he is an able nose tackle but he is not the second coming of Casey Hampton. On the plus side, opposing teams had a miserly average of 2.2 yards per carry running up the middle while he was on the field, and only 2.9 yards per carry even when they ran away from him. The downside was his inability to rush the passer (which some of us had hoped would be a strength). Big Steve had to come off the field when opponents showed a passing formation, and the Steelers got gashed badly on run plays from those spread-out formations.

Fangupo also confirmed our early opinion. A solid backup.

Keisel may have played a year too long. His powerful bull rush and good technique served well on passing plays, but 2013 opponents were able to control him on run downs. It seemed that Father Time may have caught up with Pittsburgh's favorite Father Christmas.

Hood fared worse. His play was so poor that Keisel's diminishing performance didn't cost him many snaps in the big picture. Casual fans (like me) were told that Hood was "merely average but still a good contributor." BTSC's cadre of film-watchers were united and emphatic that Tunch & Wolf were being far too kind.

Heyward took the opposite route and blossomed into a star. By the end of the year BTSC community opinion had accepted Heyward as a certain all-pro in the years to come.

Woods also confirmed our high opinion. He played exactly the way a multi-position backup should play - not so well that the starters seemed threatened, but well enough that we didn't get worried when he took the field. Woods showed every sign that he finally "got it."

As for the rookies, Arnfelt spent the year on the practice squad. No news emerged (as appropriate) until he was promoted for the final three games where he played two snaps in ‘garbage time.' Quiet stirrings passed through BTSC: "That must have been to avoid the chance that other teams would poach him away..." Williams spent the year on IR. No doubt he learned all that can learned about playing defensive end if you are doing it from the rehab center.

So after 2013 we expected to see...

Keisel retire. Many a BTSC'er has a lifetime tribute speech prepared for the actual moment. Unless the Steelers wanted to sign him on for a final-year stint as a minimum-salary backup and teacher.

Hood depart for greener pastures with a 4-3 team. Or possibly to re-sign with the Steelers at an "adequate contributor" salary in the $2.5-3 Million per year range.

Woods re-sign as a backup, getting around $1.5 million per year. Maybe he'd even push Hood for the starting job.

Thus looking forward to the future, we anticipated the following lineup:

  • NT (Starter): McLendon
  • NT (Backup): Fangupo
  • DE (Starter): Heyward
  • DE (Starter): Woods, or maybe a re-signed Hood
  • DE (Rotation): In the ideal world a 2013 rookie, but more likely a re-signed Hood or a one-year free agent (who could be named Keisel).
  • NT/DE (Backup): ---- No clear answer, but probably a mix of Woods and McLendon at DE, with Fangupo moving in at nose tackle. Hood would have been perfect, of course, and the potential hole would ease as the 2013 rookie moved toward true journeyman status.

In the draft we thought the Steelers might go for a dream talent (probably Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt or Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman), but would more likely search for another in the line of late round prospects like Arnfelt and Williams.

And then came free agency.

As expected, Keisel informally retired but remains available for the one-year-too-many going away tour. We'll find out in June or July.

Ziggy Hood is gone. $4 million per year from the Jaguars, and Woods signed with the Titans!

That left a lineup with multiple holes:

  • NT (Starter): McLendon
  • NT (Backup): Fangupo
  • DE (Starter): Heyward
  • DE (Starter): -----
  • DE (Rotation): -----, or maybe the Keisel/2013 rookie combination.
  • NT/DE (Backup): -----.

Panic ensued. But there was a genuine and talented 3-4 DE on the market - Alex Carrington, formerly of the Buffalo Bills. Carrington insisted on shopping around for the best deal he could get. (How dare he try to earn a buck?) But the Steelers remained in the equation. If only his price didn't rise in a bidding war... Then:

The Steelers signed a nose tackle named Cam Thomas, who'd washed out in San Diego, to a 2-year, $4 million deal.

Colbert assured us that Thomas would play defensive end even though he's never done it. Fair enough, we said, the Steelers have replaced Woods. Anyone who looked at the film could easily see that Al Woods was at least $500,000 better than Thomas. Why not match the Titans' offer? Especially when Woods knew the system and had proven ability to play DE as well. What was going on? Wasn't Woods the odds-on favorite as our starting DE on the other side from Heyward? At least Carrington was still out there. Maybe his price wouldn't be too high... And then:

Carrington signed a one-year "show me deal" with the Rams for a measly $1.5 Million. There are no words.

So where are the Steelers now?

  • NT (Starter): McLendon
  • NT (Backup): Fangupo
  • DE (Starter): Heyward
  • DE (Starter): -----
  • DE (Rotation): ----, or maybe the Keisel/2013 rookie combination.
  • NT/DE (2nd Backup): Thomas (failed at NT for the Chargers and only projected at DE)
  • 2013 Rookie: Arnfelt
  • 2013 Rookie: Williams

Riddle me this...

Do we really believe that any second year player can slot into the Steelers defense as a starter, or even as a useful rotation guy? Even Aaron Smith took until Year 3.

Could the undrafted Arnfelt really have progressed that much faster than first round picks like Hood and Heyward?

Could seventh-rounder Williams really progress in step with Arnfelt, when he was even more raw at the beginning and spent the year on IR?

Do we really believe that Keisel has another year in the tank? It really didn't look good for him at the end of last year.

Isn't the obvious answer to get at least some kind of veteran presence - like Carrington - to compete with Keisel and the 2013 rookies? Then why would the Steelers let Carrington get away if it only took $1.5 million to sign him as a one-year insurance contract? I understand that Carrington's agent has an unpleasant history with the Steelers front office, but that's pretty extreme! The money is available via some easy and obvious restructures.

The one thing we know for sure, the 2014 draft will not fill any holes on the defensive line, and probably not on the 2015 line either.

The two best defensive end prospects in this year's draft are Ra'Shede Hageman and Stephon Tuitt. Neither is remotely ready to start in the NFL. We can be fairly confident that Tuitt will get there eventually, but he's certainly not a better prospect than Heyward in 2011 (three years' gestation), Aaron Smith in 1999 (same), or Hood in 2009 (five years and never arrived). And Hageman pairs an extraordinary upside with an equally grave potential for being a bust. His fundamentals need so much work that asking him to play any snaps in 2014 could inhibit the take-apart-and-rebuild process.

Beyond those two lies a vast gulf until you arrive at a cluster of even more speculative prospects with grades in the 4-6 range. I like a lot of these guys but there is a reason why every one is at least 2-3 rounds behind the top two prospects.

  • Will Clarke, DE, West Virginia
  • Deandre Coleman, DE/NT, California
  • Ben Gardner, DE, Stanford
  • Taylor Hart, DE, Oregon
  • Tim Jackson, DE, North Carolina
  • DaQuan Jones, NT/DE, Penn State
  • Kareem Martin, DE/OLB, North Carolina
  • Josh Mauro, DE, Stanford
  • Jeoffrey Pagan, DE, Alabama
  • Kelcy Quarles, DE, South Carolina
  • Shamar Stephen, DE, Connecticut
  • Ed Stinson, DE, Alabama
  • Brent Urban, DE, Virginia

It's not a strong class, it's not a big class, and even if it happened to be both the basic fact would remain: rookie linemen NEVER play for the Steelers until Coach Mitchell has taken them apart and completely remade them. That's not because the Steelers want it to be that way, it's because history proves that neither rookies nor 2nd-year players can do the job. See Aaron Smith, Cam Heyward, etc.

What's the future of the defensive line, and what moves will the Steelers need to make, both now and in the future, to return the unit to prominence?