Although it is something I don't particularly like to do, and definitely don't want to make a habit of, I always admit when I am wrong. Steelers defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk seems determined to prove me incorrect about everything from his draft status to his overall abilities.
Instead of reliving and rehashing all the boring details of my own personal meltdown immediately after the Steelers traded away future draft capital to move into the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft to select a non-descript defensive lineman from Wisconsin I wholeheartedly believe the Steelers could have selected in the sixth round, I still openly question if he would have actually been drafted at all.
That may sound a little harsh, but have you actually watched his collegiate film. Even the most ardent Loudermilk supporter would have a hard time describing it as impressive, at least with a straight face.
Then Loudermilk, an extremely big-boned individual with an abnormally large frame, arrived at camp still noticeably less than his collegiate playing weight. Questions about his future position began to arise. Was he a defensive end, or a defensive tackle? He appeared to be a gigantic behemoth without a clear position.
Thankfully the Steelers had a deep and talented defensive line, so the kid wouldn't need to see meaningful minutes as a rookie. Or so we thought. You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.
Flash forward to the present, and now you will hear me singing a far different tune. Not only do I think that Loudermilk needs to receive an increase in opportunities, but I believe that the young man needs to start in the base defense if the Steelers are going to reach their full potential. Talk about a complete 180°.
Let me try to explain my reasoning.
Loudermilk remains an extremely raw prospect; however, Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar has done a masterful job of getting Loudermilk up to speed, to the point he was the Steelers’ best run-stuffing defensive lineman not named Cameron Heyward last season. This fact is something few could have imagined taking place when he was drafted. My Grading the Pick article on Loudermilk paints a clear picture of my first impression.
With the recent Stephon Tuitt retirement, the Steelers need Loudermilk to start in their base defense to have their best run defense unit on the field to begin each contest.
The Steelers 2020 starting defensive line of Heyward, Alualu, and Tuitt was arguably the best defensive line in the NFL. With Tuitt's absence in 2021, and Alualu's season ending injury in the second game of the season, Cameron Heyward was the last man standing. Although Heyward played at a All-Pro level, the defense suffered mightily, finishing last in run defense.
However, there is hope on the horizon. Alualu appears set to make his triumphant return, fit and properly motivated. The biggest remaining question mark is who is going to fill Tuitt's shoes, or take over his starting position in other words.
Loudermilk is the optimal choice for that role to start this season. He proved to be stout against the run in 2021, even though he lacked experience and any semblance of a pass rush. He has worked hard this offseason to add functional mass and strength, and worked closely with Cam Heyward to add to his pass rushing repertoire, especially his bull rush.
The early portion of training camp and the preseason should reveal some much needed answers for the Steelers. If Loudermilk has improved his already impressive run stopping ability, and he can at least consistently collapse the pocket on passing downs, then I believe he is destined to be the starting defensive end.
A starting defensive line of Heyward, Alualu, and Loudermilk would be extremely difficult to run the ball successfully against. Then the Steelers depth chart would consist of recently signed Larry Ogunjobi, Montravius Adams, Chris Wormley, and talented rookie DeMarvin Leal.
The Steelers could work Ogunjobi slowly into the defense, focusing specifically on his pass rush prowess, as he continues to recover from his Lisfranc injury. Adams is a quick twitch athlete who is probably best served in the limited minutes of a rotation. Wormley is a savvy veteran with some pass rush ability, but vulnerable against the run. In this scenario, barring injuries, Leal will be allowed to grow and learn at his own pace. But as I mentioned earlier, the best laid plans and all.
As Ogunjobi rounds into form as the season progresses, his snaps would undoubtedly increase, to the point he could take over starting duties. That is, unless Loudermilk lays claim to the position and runs with it.
Either way, the Steelers would be sitting pretty, and last year's nightmare run defense will be nothing more than a bad memory.