Let’s get something out of the way now: Steve McLendon was a good nose tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It has to be said, because there is this stigma that hangs over his tenure in Pittsburgh to this day. But, if you ask anyone who think he was a sub-par defensive lineman to tell you why they think that was the case, you will get one of two responses (or maybe both): he was always hurt, and “he’s not Casey Hampton.”
The first point is somewhat valid, though still a stretch. Yes, he missed plays, series and games with injuries, and at a pace that feels slightly higher than average, regardless of position. The second point is ludicrous, though. There will only ever be one Casey Hampton. Big Snack was, at the peak of his career, the best nose tackle in the game. He made a case for being considered the best 3-4 nose tackle ever, to be honest.
So, to compare a guy who was arguably the best to ever play his position to an undrafted free agent who played so well that he got himself a $3 million-per-year contract with another team is beyond invalid; it’s flat-out wrong. The Steelers’ 2015 defense struggled greatly when McLendon was off the field. The run defense was vastly better when he played.
Oh, and as for that always-injured stigma? He played all 16 games in 2015.
Thanks to finding greener pastures in New York City, though, he’s now passing the torch to a third-year player who also found himself making his way to the NFL with little fanfare: Dan McCullers.
Now, there’s very little comparison between the two. McLendon was originally a prototypical 4-3 defensive tackle — a little more trim, with more of a downhill, attacking game. When he inherited the nose tackle position, he had to bulk up, and he did just that, adding more than 20 pounds t get to around 310.
McCullers, by comparison, spent his first year working on conditioning and losing weight — to the tune of 50 pounds, getting himself down to 360 or so. Between his first and second years, he lost another 10 pounds. And he’s reportedly lost a few more this offseason, putting him somewhere around 345 pounds and looking trim — or, as trim as a 6’7”, 345-pound monster can.
They also play very differently. Due to the evolution of NFL offenses, neither McLendon or McCullers spent much time on the field in 2015. But in those precious few snaps, McLendon found himself with 14 tackles, one sack and a pass defended. We never consistently got to see that downhill play, a style that many felt made McLendon more suited to defensive end rather than nose tackle. The evidence supports it, too: his lone sack came while rotating at end.
McCullers saw far fewer snaps, and two things became obvious in those few snaps. For one thing, he can play downhill with the best of them, simply because there are few offensive linemen who can handle his bulk consistently. The proof is in the fact that he spent most of his plays in the offensive backfield. But that’s where the second nuance of his game is revealed: he plays too much with his head down. He drives centers into the backfield, snap after snap — and then runs right past the play, because he has been more concerned with driving his man back than with keeping his eyes on the play. It’s something that coaching and repetition should fix pretty easily, but the adjustment could be a little ugly early.
He has, however, received ample praise from defensive line coach John Mitchell for his off-season work. He’s also been pretty hard on himself, and has realized the value of conditioning and hard work. It shows in his relatively svelte physique, when compared to his college days at Tennessee.
It’s possible we could be having the same discussion in a year or two, only with McCullers passing on the torch to 2016 rookie Javon Hargrave. As of now, though, it’s equally possible McCullers makes himself a long career filling Hampton’s old role.
It’s important, though, to remember that McCullers will never be another Hampton. He’ll also never be another Steve McLendon, or even another Joel Steed for that matter. But he has an excellent chance to become one heck of a Dan McCullers.