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Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Position Preview: Defensive Line

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The defensive line starters are the only ones on the defense that are pretty much locked in heading into camp. But they have a lot -- a whole lot -- of guys from which to find their depth.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Much like the offensive line, the Steelers' 2015 defensive line is most likely going to look virtually unchanged, at least among the starters.  The similarities continue, though, as the backups are likely to look a lot different.

The starting lineup of Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon and Stephon Tuitt are becoming a solid unit. Heyward has continued to grow into one of the top 3-4 defensive ends in the league, while Tuitt started to figure things out in the final quarter of the 2014 season.

McLendon gets a bad rap. An undeserved one, at that.

Steelers fans were spoiled for more than a decade: Casey Hampton defined what a nose tackle should be. He was big, he was strong, he drew constant double teams. McLendon's biggest failure is not being named Casey Hampton.

By his own merit, though, Big Mac is a solid nose tackle. He plays the game different than Hampton, by design, but he does it well.

When he's on the field, at least. Which is why we are starting this defensive line preview in the middle.

In 2015, his likely backup is Dan McCullers -- the biggest player in the 2014 draft. He doesn't move mountains. He is a mountain.

at 352 pounds, McCullers would be huge by any measure. Put that on his 6'-7" frame, though, and it's a surprisingly svelte 352. Standing next to most players, he would, quite literally, blot out the sun.

And did I mention that he's down to 352?

In 2014, rare was the example of someone pushing McCullers back. By rare, I mean nonexistent. He didn't spend much time on the field, but the one thing he did well was acquaint opposing centers with the deep offensive backfield. With some focus on technique and play recognition, he may not be long for a backup role.

Beyond McCullers, though, the depth is shaky at tackle. Last year's primary backup early in the season, Cam Thomas, could generously be described as "underwhelming." "Lost puppy dog" may be more apt. And behind him is rookie Mike Thornton who, at 296 pounds, is either going to be moved to end or is not long for this roster.

At end, things get cluttered: there are six guys fighting for two, maybe three backup roles. Line coach John Mitchell specifically asked for Clifton Geathers to be re-signed, so it's unlikely he won't make the team. He's got talent, and a mean streak measured in miles.

That leaves five guys, and two spots in the best of scenarios. Returning from last year are Ethan Hemer, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2014, and Joe Kruger, who was signed in November after Josh Mauro and Nick Williams were poached from the practice squad. That they both were brought back either says the team thinks enough of them to get another look, or they were so concerned in January about depth that they felt they had no choice. There's no telling, but Hemer has flashed enough to warrant giving him a chance.

Matt Conrath was signed from the Rams during the off-season. He has appeared in nine games in three seasons, picking up seven tackles and a sack. He'd be depth at best, but at least he has some experience. That's more than can be said about any other backup besides Geathers.

Finally, there are the two rookies, L.T. Walton and Niko Davis. Walton was drafted; Davis was a UDFA. Walton was a defensive tackle in college, but has the athleticism and build to be an end in the pros. He has an explosive first step and works his hands well. With a little more strength, he could be a pretty dangerous rotation player.

The fact that Davis is here at all is impressive -- he didn't even want to play football. He is currently lacking most of the important things: strength, speed and size.But he has a lot of heart, and he's smart. He's probably a good prospect for the practice squad.

My Absurdly Early Prediction: Heyward, McLendon, Tuitt, Geathers and McCullers aren't going anywhere. Behind them, I see Walton making the final 53. If they keep seven on the line, Hemer takes the other spot. Davis will be on the practice squad, and Kruger could be there too. Conrath may not make it past the second cut-down.