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Steelers developing raw, young and talented defensive linemen

The Steelers have an exceptional amount of talent currently resting in the raw forms of their young defensive linemen. It may not come to fruition this season, but it won't be long until the Steelers' depth on its line becomes the strength of the defense.

It's a new era for the Steelers' defensive line.

Gone are Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and, as of today, Brett Keisel. There isn't a Kimo Von Oelhoffen, Chris Hoke or Travis Kirschke. There isn't even a Nick Eason or a Rodney Bailey filling in snaps.

What there is, though, is every indication that kind of depth can, and will, be replenished. And it's all being done outside the magnified lens of the rest of the NFL.

It's not tough to point to Stephon Tuitt as the ringleader of this transformation. The heavy-handed 308-pound monster is working to earn the spot opposite Cameron Heyward in the team's base defense, and from a technical standpoint, could be the most advanced defensive end the Steelers have brought in recently.

Tuitt spoke with Steel City Insider Jim Wexell, who noted a source indicating Tuitt's technique still needs some work.

"But he still has that sprinter's stance," said one source. "He has to work on developing a stance that's more suited to a 3-4, because he's still thinking 4-3. Until that gets worked out, he'll give us something on third down."

In evaluating Tuitt for Steelers Film Room pieces as well as John Mitchell Boot Camp, that sprinter's stance wasn't readily noticeable, but those evaluations were done on his tape from Notre Dame and not in training camp. It can also be based more in a general view as opposed to what's likely a much more narrowly pinpointed observation by Wexell's source.

Still, Tuitt displays plenty of reason for optimism, and the fact he's getting reps with the first team defense now (Wexell noted Tuitt was in at the left defensive end position with Steve McLendon out Saturday, Cam Thomas moved to nose tackle) speaks well for a rookie defensive lineman.

Steelers' 2013 seventh round pick Nick Williams leads a group of very intriguing prospects. Athletic and raw, Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury during an impressive camp for the small school product who's been on Mitchell's radar for a while.

"It's feeling better each day," Williams told BTSC's John Phillips Saturday about the status of his knee. "I've just got to build more confidence in it and build more reps in it. It's a day-by-day process."

Williams noted Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has told him he needs to stay lower, but that's certainly not an exclusive statement for any one younger defensive lineman. He can learn to get low. Tomlin can't teach him the kind of athleticism and frame Williams has - he measured very favorably in terms of athletic ability to Falcons' second round pick Ra'Shede Hageman.

Add in 2014 undrafted free agent Josh Mauro, who can be considered this year's Williams, except what Mauro lacks in athleticism, he makes up for in technique. Also a project, but a player who shows an understanding of hand placement and leverage, which are two things younger defensive ends typically need to learn when making the jump from college to the pros. Mauro, the fifth year senior from Stanford, is advanced in comparison to his peers in that regard. He wasn't drafted because he doesn't display a large amount of athleticism.

But as Mauro said before the draft, his tenacity can overcome that.

Williams probably has the edge in terms of a roster spot, if it came down to the two of them. A year in the system along with heightened athleticism are factors that can't be ignored. Still, Williams knows this won't come down to just physical measurements.

"(The defensive ends) are some really good guys. The preseason games are the tell-all," William said. "We got a good group of guys here, but I feel pretty confident."

Rounding out the group is a combination of all of them - Brian Arnfelt is the only one with roster and game experience. An undrafted free agent out of Northwestern in 2013, Arnfelt spent the bulk of his rookie year on the practice squad but was active for the team's final two games. His technique is also advanced for his level of experience but with another year under his belt, he can be considered a very difficult cut as well.

Looking down the line, it's impossible to miss Dan McCullers.

Steelers cornerback William Gay told Trib Live radio host Ken Laird recently McCullers' potential is higher than the top of his head.

"He reminds me of the movie ‘The Longest Yard’, the big dude that was in there and he started crying and then destroyed everybody," Gay told Laird. "Me and Troy were just talking, every time we’re going to just walk up and give him a hug. Nice guy. Won’t say too much to you. I told him, ‘Once you get six years in, people are going to be scared to talk to you.’ You’re going to say ‘Get out my face’. I told him, ‘You’re bigger than everybody. Just move people.’"

The first false narrative of this team in 2013 was the adage of "old and slow." This team had an issue with age in 2013, but it was the lack of it, not the presence, that hurt the most. This season may show their defensive line isn't fully developed, and there will be struggles coming from younger players having to, as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, "catch up to and get on a moving train."

But what the younger players show is very similar to the team's growth at their defensive line positions in the 2000s, the developmental years of Hampton, Smith and Keisel. Perhaps Heyward is the Hampton and Tuitt is the Smith. Williams could be the Keisel - a very athletic developmental project who could assume a starting role at some point.

It's a disservice to compare them to the past, just as it isn't fair to compare the past to anyone but themselves. This group has the talent to create their own legacy, and it's one that befits an organization that's been among the best at developing defensive line talent for decades.