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Future of the Steelers: Breaking down defensive linemen contracts over the next few seasons

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The future of the Steelers' defensive line the future. The contract of the unit's best player, Cameron Heyward, will impact the team overall, but the development of the young players on the roster may be more important.

Karl Walter

Discounting their 2014 draft picks and prospective undrafted players, the Pittsburgh Steelers have just 27 players signed past this season.

And six were selected during last year's NFL Draft.

PITTSBURGH -- Among those was defensive end Nick Williams, but a training camp foot injury sidelined him for the entire season. He was on crutches late into the year and might just be coming around now. Williams was considered to be a project before he was injured, so he hasn't even practiced in a year.

So, when Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel were not re-signed during free agency, and Hood eventually signed elsewhere, the Steelers needed to make a deal. They signed free agent Cam Thomas to fill Keisel's spot on the Steelers' three-man defensive front, while Cam Heyward has solidified the other end position.

Williams could be a capable backup, but absolutely nothing is known about him at this point. The same could be said about Brian Arnfelt, who played in two games last season, but is a backup end as well. Williams is signed through 2016, while Arnfelt is only signed for this season. However, he will be an exclusive rights free agent in 2015 and easily re-signed if they want him. Arnfelt will make $495,000 this year, while Williams signed a four-year, $2,217,848 contract as a rookie. The deal included a $57,848 signing bonus. He will make $495,000 this year, $585,000 next year and $675,000 in 2016.

Heyward came on strong last season and is considered to be a star in the making. Unfortunately, he is in the final year of his rookie contract, and the Steelers must decide if they want to extend him at some point before this season begins. It's one of the critical contract decisions they must make. Heyward, who signed a four-year, $6.705 million rookie contract, received a signing bonus at $3.376 million. He will make $1,289,322 this year.

Thomas received a two-year contract for $4 million with a signing bonus at $1 million. He will make $1 million this year and $2 million next season. The Steelers are counting on him to make an impact this season, but he wasn't more than serviceable through four seasons with the San Diego Chargers. It would be prudent for the Steelers to also select a D-lineman during the draft.

Some even want them to take a beefy nose tackle in the first round, especially if Notre Dame's Louis Nix is available when the Steelers are up at No. 15. If not, they will continue to go with incumbent starter Steve McLendon and backup Hebron Fangupo. The other nose tackle on the roster is Al Lapuaho. McLendon had big shoes to fill last season, literally and figuratively, when the Steelers didn't re-sign Casey Hampton. And he underachieved. Fangupo has promise, but he has played in just five games in three years in Pittsburgh.

McLendon signed a three-year, $7.25 million contract last year that included a $1.675 million signing bonus. In the two remaining years, he will make $2.425 and $2.25 million, respectively, and be an unrestricted free agent in 2016. His future with the club depends on performance now, instead of promise. Fangupo is signed through 2015 as well, but he will be a restricted free agent in 2016. He will make $495,000 this year and $585,000 next season.