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Breaking Down the Steelers Team Needs: Part 9, Defensive Line

The final entry in our series will look at backups who might provide important depth behind the starting three

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Here is what has come before:

To end the series we will examine what is simultaneously the strongest part of this year’s draft class and one of the Steelers’ lowest priorities: defensive line.

Over the past few years BTSC has discussed the evolution of the Pittsburgh D-Line many times, explaining how the team used to play a 2-gapping “Okie” system where the front three DT’s occupy four to five offensive linemen, thereby keeping the linebackers free to fly around and make plays; how and why that shifted to a 1-gapping “Eagle” system in which the DT’s use penetration to disrupt opponents, with the linebackers cleaning up through the chaos; and how the rise of spread offenses has effectively removed the Nose Tackle from our defense for 60-70% of all snaps, making the 2-4-5 a/k/a 4-2-5 a/k/a 4-3 Over/Under formation almost as much of the “base” as the nominal 3-4. I love all that X’s and O’s stuff but this isn’t the time and place. Bottom Line: The Steelers use 2½ “starters” on the Defensive Line, and have three all- or fringe-all-pro caliber players to fill those slots. In other words, barring injury the team has more star power at the position than it can fully use.

That isn’t to say we should just ignore the position. The Defensive Line’s importance to a defense can’t be overstated; DL’s get a bigger share of bumps, bruises and joint manipulations than almost anyone else; the resulting injuries and exhaustion makes depth a bigger concern than most other positions; and teams that don’t have five Size XL monsters will be helpless on short yardage plays. Plus there’s the fact that much of Pittsburgh’s 2018 depth at the position will be free agents in 2019. So let’s start by looking at the current roster:

  • Cam Heyward. Team captain, team leader, fan favorite and star. Signed to a long term contract.
  • Stephon Tuitt. Maybe even better than Heyward when he’s healthy. Also signed to a long term contract.
  • Javon Hargrave [Final Year of Rookie Deal]. The 2016 Round 3 pick that BTSC would have picked in Round 1. Were we ever happy when his name got called! And were we ever right. Came into his own as a budding star in 2018 that opposing coaches expressly warned about in pregame press conferences.
  • Tyson Alualu [Unrestricted Free Agent]. A 2010 1st-round bust for the Jaguars who has been a superb backup here in Pittsburgh. Will he get starter time and money elsewhere?
  • L.T. Walton [Unrestricted Free Agent]. Pittsburgh chose him in the sixth round of the 2015 as a boom-or-bust athlete. He boomed enough to raise hopes and easily secure a backup slot, but in 2018 was the clear #5 behind the three starters and Alualu. Arguably the #6 behind McCullers too, though Big Dan has more of a specialty job.
  • Dan McCullers [Unrestricted Free Agent]. The eternal “if only.” He finally took a step up in 2018, at least enough to fight off a challenge from 7th Round pick Joshua Frazier (now out of the league). His job is to be an immovable object in short yardage situations. He’s been occasionally effective at doing so.
  • Conor Sheehy. A hardnosed, blue-collar powerlifting champion who’s a tweener for the NFL at 6’4” and 295 lb. The Packers took him in 2018 as a UDFA. If he makes a major Sophomore Leap he will be ready to fight for some kind of deep backup role, but ‘major’ is the operative word.
  • Lavon Hooks. A 2016 UDFA for the Packers with good size (6’3”, 310 lbs.) and decent athleticism, but he is running out of chances. He hasn’t managed to work up to Journeyman status yet but he is still young enough to have legitimate dreams that things might someday click.

That is a well-stacked roster! The only issue is contracts. The top three are all you could reasonably hope for and one assumes that Hargrave will get the extension he’s earned for 2020 and beyond. No issue there. But literally all the established depth (three out of three) consists of free agents who could depart. It seems more likely that one or two will sign a relatively inexpensive, short term deal but who knows? In an case, those are the men a draft pick could legitimately hope to challenge so let’s look at the available talent.

Or maybe not just yet.

How do you describe what may prove to be the best Defensive Line class in living memory, and maybe the best ever? I am going to start by disappointing all the draftniks who read my articles. Sanity demands that we move all the players who deserve to get picked in Rounds 1-3 onto an Ain’t Gonna Happen List. They are too much in demand by other teams; the Steelers would get too little bang for the buck compared to other positions; and there are just too many of them to spend all the space it would take for descriptions.

The Ain’t Gonna Happen List

  • DL Ed Oliver, Houston. 6’2”, 290 lbs. Top 10 talent.
  • DL Quinnen Williams, Alabama. 6’3”, 285 lbs. Top 10 talent.
  • DL Jeffery Simmons, Miss. St. 6’4”, 300 lbs. Top 10-15 talent.
  • DL/EDGE Rashan Gary, Michigan. 6’5”, 283 lbs. Top 10-15 talent.
  • DL/NT Dre’Mont Jones, Ohio State. 6’2”, 295 lbs. Round 1 talent.
  • DL Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame. 6’7”, 305 lbs. Round 1 talent leavened by effort concerns.
  • DL/NT Christian Wilkins, Clemson. 6’4”, 315 lbs. Round 1 talent.
  • DL Terry Beckner, Jr., Missouri. 6’4”, 295 lbs. Round 2-3 talent.
  • DL Isaiah Buggs, Alabama. 6’5”, 286 lbs. Round 2-3 talent.
  • DL/NT Dexter Lawrence, Clemson. 6’4”, 350 lbs. Round 2-3 talent leavened by a PED suspension.
  • DL Charles Omenihu, Texas. 6’6”, 275 lbs. Round 2-3 talent.
  • DL Gerald Willis, Miami. 6’3”, 300 lbs. Round 2-3 talent.
  • DL/NT Renell Wren, Arizona St. 6’4”, 295 lbs. Round 2-3 talent.

Film watchers could easily fall in love with any of those players and the Steelers might certainly pick one if he fell to the point where the BPA bargain was too rich to ignore (or of course if there is something going on behind the scenes that we do not know about). But it just isn’t worth the brain cells and article space to discuss them.

This next group includes the ones that Nick Farabaugh and I have identified as team fits for one reason or another. The basic criterion is someone who might be available in Round 6 or 7 even if a neutral evaluator would expect him to get picked in Round 3-5. “Unlikely” is okay by us, just not “absurd.” Their Pittsburgh-specific value will of course change depending on who the team (re)signs in free agency. If both Alualu and L.T. Walton depart, the F.O. will be looking for length and explosiveness; i.e., lesser versions of Tuitt and Heyward. If Big Dan McCullers is gone the team will want an immovable object for short yardage situations. Etc.

The Options On The BTSC Big Board: [fn]

  • 5:01 DL Zach Allen, Boston College. 6’5”, 282 lbs. You’ve got to love tough guy grinders who stand up Offensive Tackles in the run game and beat them on passing downs with grit, persistence and an array of subtle but nasty hand fighting and leverage techniques. Alas, but he’s a pure, Day Two DE for a 4-3 team, without the bend and overall athleticism needed to play OLB in Pittsburgh. The grade would be even lower if there was no chance he could bulk up into a smaller Defensive Tackle.
  • 5:01 DL Demarcus Christmas, Florida St. 6’4”, 308 lbs. A solid player with the sort of explosiveness the Steelers have been favoring.
  • 5:01 DL/NT Daylon Mack, Texas A&M. 6’0”, 320 lbs. A 5-star recruit who fizzled and underperformed through his college career until he suddenly started to get it in the back end of 2018. A dazzling and dominant performance at the Shrine Game started buzz to the effect that he’s finally arrived. Hidden as he is behind the obvious superstar prospects who will go on Days 1 and 2, could Daylon Mack be the defensive line steal of the draft?
  • 5:01 DL Anthony Nelson, Iowa. 6’7”, 271 lbs. A good looking 4-3 anchor-type DE who will fit some other team a lot better than Pittsburgh, where he’d be asked to bulk up into a mobile Defensive Tackle rather than a Size XL Edge player. His biggest flaws are a lack of bend and ability to play in space, both of which make him unsuited to the 3-4 OLB role.
  • 5:01 DL/NT Olive Sagapolu, Wisconsin. 6’2”, 345 lbs. A mid-round immovable object.
  • 6:01 DL/NT Greg Gaines, Washington. 6’1”, 322 lbs. An immovable object with good strength and leverage but no real pass rush ability.
  • 6:16 DL/NT Edwin Alexander, LSU. 6’3”, 339 lbs. A massive, fairly explosive NT who fills up space but greatly needs to work on his pad level.
  • 6:16 DL/NT Khairi Clark, Florida. 6’1”, 315 lbs. Rawer than raw with little to no explosive ability off the line. His ability to bull rush may earn a roster spot somewhere but he has massive work to do if he ever wants to be more than a gap plugging run stuffer.
  • 6:16 DL/NT Khalen Saunders, W. Illinois. 6’2”, 320 pounds. Want a late round flier who’s on the board for a very good reason having nothing to do with football? Watch this and you won’t even think of disagreeing. Last time I saw something like that it was Jason Pierre-Paul at the Combine, and he turned out okay...
  • 6:16 DL Daniel Wise, Kansas. 6’3”, 290 lbs. A pure penetrator with good 1st-step explosion but questionable ability to hold up if that trick fails. A standout at the Shrine Game where he regularly beat up on Centers and Guards alike.