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Dispelling the Myth: The prototypical nose tackle

Many Steelers fans have in mind what they think a nose tackle should look like, but are their expectations grounded in reality?

Oakland Raiders v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

We’ve heard it since the beginning a free agency once the Steelers lost their starting nose tackle from the last four seasons. Javon Hargrave played at a high-level for the Steelers and it was difficult to find a fan who didn’t appreciate his contributions to the defense. Unfortunately, although the Steelers tried the best they could, sometimes a team just can’t pay everybody in a given position group.

Since Hargrave got himself a hefty contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, many Steelers fans have been wondering about the plan at nose tackle moving forward. Would the Steelers address the position high in the 2020 draft? Would they look in free agency?

The answer is the Steelers kind of did both, but not really either. Technically not going the free-agent route, the Steelers added Chris Wormley in a trade from the Baltimore Ravens. Additionally, the Steelers did not draft a player for the defensive line until their final selection of Carlos Davis in the seventh round. Although they added players up front, Steelers’ fans are uncertain if either player is really the answer at nose tackle.

So what are the Steelers to do? Are they going to make another move? Are they really going to use the “next man up” philosophy and have 2019 reserve nose tackle Daniel McCullers take over the job? It doesn’t seem like there are any other options.

In actuality, the Steelers have a lot of options at nose tackle for the 2020 season. The biggest issue is the fans not seeing the recent trend at the position due to previous expectations.

In other words, it’s Casey Hampton’s fault.

Drafted as the 19th overall selection in the first round of the 2001 NFL draft, Hampton was a five-time Pro Bowler for the Steelers. In fact, he is probably the all-time best nose tackle the team has had since switching to a 3-4 defense in 1982. He was a force in the middle which set the tone for the entire defense.

The first thing to recognize in this situation is Hampton played at the end of an era where stopping the run, particularly in the middle of the field, was still paramount. As NFL offenses have evolved into much more of a passing threat in recent years, the use of a full defensive line has been diminished. This is prevalent not only in the NFL, but even more in college as these players are not utilized as much and therefore the options are limited come draft time.

While this is a huge discussion in and of itself, it’s actually not the point I’m trying to make at this time. Rather than focus on frequency of use, the issue of size has been a sticking point with many Steelers fans.

According to Pro Football Reference (the source which will be used for all of these numbers), Casey Hampton is listed at 6’1” and 325 pounds. Big Snack used his frame to his advantage which helped plug holes in the middle. Since his final season with the Steelers in 2012, many fans have been calling for a “Hampton-type nose tackle” to take on the role, especially since the loss of Javon Hargrave.

Between Hampton’s and Hargrave’s tenure, Steve McLendon held down the position from 2013 through 2015. At 6‘3“ and 310 pounds, McLendon was slightly smaller than Hampton but not to and extended degree. As for Javon Hargrave, he measured 6’2” and 305 pounds. Although not quite the size of Hampton, both of these players were adequate at holding down the position. In fact, it’s difficult to find a Steelers fan who did not think Javon Hargrave did a great job for the Steelers.

The problem lies with the Steelers current roster. With McCullers being the carryover from 2019, he does tip the scale in a manner fans would feel was appropriate for the position. Weighing in at 352 pounds, it’s the 6‘7“ frame which many point out as his leverage sometimes seems to be his biggest obstacle.

So the concern is the Steelers don’t have other options. While it is extremely difficult to find another Casey Hampton, the Steelers do have a number of players in the same mold as Javon Hargrave. Tyson Alualu is 6’3” and 304 pounds. So only an inch taller and 1 pound less than Hargrave is the numerical evidence against fans saying he’s not built to play the position.

Another possibility for the Steelers is the aforementioned Chris Wormley who weighs in at 300 pounds and 6‘5“. Leaning more towards the McCullers end of the spectrum rather than Hampton when it comes to height, it will be interesting to see if Wormley is the type of player who “plays low.” But only 5 pounds less than Hargrave, it’s not a drop off in size at the position.

Interesting enough, one player many fans have been saying could step into the nose tackle role in his second year is defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs. At 6‘3“ and 295 pounds, Buggs is actually lighter than the other players some fans feel can’t play the position due to size. Rookie Carlos Davis fits more of the mold at 6‘2“ tall and 313 pounds, but his raw ability, although coupled with a lot of athleticism, is not something fan should be counting on for 2020.

Of course, “reported weight” and “actual weight” is a point of contention, especially among linemen on both sides of the ball. While Hampton’s weight may have been misstated, there is a lot less question when it comes to Hargrave.

With Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt entrenched as the starters at the defensive tackle/end position in the Steelers 3-4 defense, it is not like the Steelers don’t have multiple options at nose tackle going into 2020. When it comes to the needed size for the position, the Steelers have several players in a very similar mold as Javon Hargrave who had four excellent years in Pittsburgh. Although many would like to see a player much like Casey Hampton plugging up the middle, it’s just not as easy to find an all-time great especially when many college programs are not developing these types of players. Factor in the change of NFL offenses and the diminished role at nose tackle, the Steelers still have the pieces to utilize the position much like they have the last four seasons.