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A detailed study of the Steelers Defensive Line and how it may impact their 2016 NFL Draft

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How does the modern Steeler 3-4 differ from the classic "Okie" of the 1990's and 2000's? What sort of players could improve the Steelers' current lineup? What players will most intrigue the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers at the deepest position in this year's draft?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The technical details in this article go far beyond my personal level of football expertise. Many thanks and a lot of credit goes to Steel34d, who not only answered my initial set of questions, but also the follow-ups and the follow-ups to the follow-ups.

I am also indebted to the authors of these four articles, which I can recommend to you wholeheartedly:

Actually, please do go and read those articles. I would really like to see the authors get extra clicks as a form of collective thank-you.

Defining some terms: "Gaps," "Techniques," "Two-Gapping and One-Gapping," and the stereotypical body types.

The blue capital letters refer to "Gaps". The A-Gaps are between the Center and the Offensive Guards, the B-Gaps are between the OG's and the Offensive Tackles, and the C-Gap between the OT and a Tight End (if there is one). The D-Gap is the space outside the TE.

The red numbers on the other side refer to the "Techniques", or starting positions, that may be used by defensive linemen. 1-tech defenders aim at the A-Gap; a 2-Tech defender lines up directly over the OG; a 3-tech aims at the B-Gap, etc.

As a general rule, D-lineman require more size and less mobility as their base position gets closer to the Center. The ultimate example is your stereotypical, 350 pound, immovable colossus of a 0-tech Nose Tackle. Another general rule is that certain techniques (0, 2, 5, and 6) tend have "two-gap" responsibilities. This means that a DL lined up as a 2-tech will probably be asked to control both the A- and B- gaps to either side of the OG he's facing. It's hard for a two-gapping lineman to actually make the tackle or get pressure on the QB. Instead their job is to make it easy for a linebacker to come charging in and either "fill" the opening on a running play or blitz through it on a pass. (N.B. I believe the odd numbered 5-tech becomes a two-gap position because the pocket is round. If you want to go directly through the OT toward the center of the pocket, you need to line up on the OT's outside shoulder).

Two-gap duties require a body that is long enough to hold the man in front of you at bay, strong enough resist the inevitable double-teams, and athletic enough react when the blocker tries to shift one way or the other on an angled block. This is why true Nose Tackles who can both play the 0-tech position and also chase down QB's are so highly valued. There are very few men on the planet who fit that description. Think Dontari Poe, Haloti Ngata, or a young Casey Hampton. They always get picked in Round 1 because they are three-down players in addition to "mere" run stuffers. An immovable colossus who can't chase people down will typically get picked in a later round depending on how far along he is. They are still vanishingly rare, but they can be schemed off the field by offensive formations that require more mobile defenders.

The classic 5-tech lineman is longer and a bit more athletic, like the 6'6" 305 pound models that the Steelers adore (who usually come with a basketball background as evidence of their movement skills). They can go at any point in the draft depending on how good they are at the 5-tech job, and how versatile they are at shifting to other spots on the line.

The stereotypical two-gap defensive lineman lives in a traditional 3-4 defense. "One-gap" defensive tackles are more common in a 4-3. Their primary job is to shoot through the A or B gap with so much speed and power that they gain an angle on the opposing lineman. 1-tech DT's tend to be a bit smaller and quicker than 0-tech NT's. They are usually assigned a slightly smaller premium, and the best are typically graded as late Round 1 to early Round 2 values. 3-tech guys like Aaron Donald can be downright short so long as they are stunningly quick. Their value is measured by explosiveness and strength above all else, and the best will rarely make it out of the Top 5 or 10.

IMPORTANT DIGRESSION: That's how the descriptions go in the mythical world of X's and O's. It doesn't work that way in reality because the patterns break down when you get to actual players - especially the ones who have the kind of peculiar athletic genius that gets them picked in Round 1 of an NFL Draft.

The young Casey Hampton could have played just as easily as a 1-tech or even a 3-tech because he had astonishing mobility for a man that big. Joe Green was the greatest 3-tech who ever lived. No one sane doubts that he could have played the 0-tech NT position too, or the 5-tech DE spot. Cam Heyward can also play anywhere along the line even if he's best as a 4- or 5-tech. It looks like the same is true for Stephon Tuitt.

Fans who like to play Junior GM (like Yours Truly) need to keep this in mind. Great talents cross and blurs the lines. Yes, there are limits. Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins can play any one-gap position on the defensive line, but neither has the sheer length required for a two-gap position. Thus the patterns are only vaguely true for any 1st Round talent. They grow more true, but still only as generalizations, as you move toward the later rounds where the players are a bit less versatile.

The Pittsburgh 3-4 and How It Has Changed

The Pittsburgh 3-4 defense of the 1990's and 2000's played the "Okie" system that came to epitomize the 3-4 approach. It begins with a space-eating, 0-tech NT like Casey Hampton who is supported by large, long and athletic 5-techs such as Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. All three had two-gap duties designed to soak up blockers and allow the linebackers easy access to both tackles and sacks. This is Mr. Bowen's sketch of how it worked:

The modern Steeler 3-4 uses an "Eagle" front instead. Here is Bowen's sketch for that:

Note that the DE's are now lined up in a one-gap spot: the 4-tech directly over the tackle (actually the 4i to indicate a slight shading toward the inside). The linebackers are the one with two-gap duties. The strong-side linebacker has to two-gap the blocking Tight End, and the two ILB's have to move along the play ("scrape") and then choose which gap to hit. [N.B. This is one of the main reasons why Pittsburgh DE's have started to produce more sacks while it's OLB's have been accounting for less. The coaches have chosen to allocate the sack opportunities in that manner].

But of course it's not that simple.

Those patterns describe the "base" 3-4, meaning the one that the Steelers play most often. You know what it takes for the defense to convert back from Eagle to Okie? About half a step out by the ends and the strong side linebackers. In other words, next to nothing. And the Steelers shift like that with great frequency because it confuses the offensive play calling and blocking schemes. Pittsburgh will also use other variations, such as the 3-4 Under Front described in the 3-4 Article.

In other words, there is not "true" or "base" formation in the modern Steeler defense beyond the general description that it uses three down linemen. But that's not all.

Want to blow your mind? Start from the Eagle 3-4 and bring Bud Dupree down to be a 7-tech on one side of the line. Now drop Jarvis Jones back half a step on the other. Know what that is called? A classic 4-3 with 3-4 personnel, right down to the idea that the inside linemen should do their best to shoot through the A- and B-gaps instead of two-gapping in a 0- or 5-technique. Then there are "hybrid" fronts pioneered by Seattle, which are basically a hard-to-explain mix of 1-gapping and 2-gapping players mixed together in a 4-man front.

The reality is that we fans have fallen behind in our nomenclature. Defensive schemes have become so fluid that the names are pretty much all out of date. What Keith Butler does in the modern Steeler defense is a mix of concepts and tactics more than the installation of any particular "system."

But what about the "sub packages" we hear so much about?

"Sub packages" occur when a team removes either a defensive lineman or a linebacker in exchange for an extra defensive back. The variations are endless and depend to a huge extent on available personnel. For example, you get one package with an extra Safety on the field and a very different set of strengths and weaknesses if you substitute in an a third Corner. The new generation of Safety/LB hybrids fudge these definitions even more. Myles Jack is going to get picked in the Top 10 of this year's draft for precisely that reason. On running plays he counts as a linebacker, and on passing plays he's a Safety. Whoever gets him will be able to shift seamlessly from a 3-4-4 base into a 3-3-5 Nickel without any substitutions. For all the jokes about moving Ryan Shazier to Safety, the fact that he can learn to do the same thing was a major part of why Pittsburgh picked him at 1:15. (What could a team do with two of those hybrids? We might find out if Jaylon Smith's knee drops him to 1:25 in this year's draft or if Su'a Cravens falls to 2:27).

Then there are the differences between removing on of the defensive lineman (a 2-4-5 package) or one of the linebackers (a 3-3-5). Or... and... if... but...

The bottom line is that (a) juggling all these variations is why Coach Butler gets the big money, and (b) we Junior GM's need to realize that each man on the roster has his own unique set of skills and weaknesses. That is what the "Best Available Player" philosophy is really all about. Get the young men with the most extraordinary and/or most versatile talents, and then trust in your coaches to tweak the system in a way that will use their talents to the highest extent. Curse him all you like, but that is the core of what's made people call Belichek a defensive genius.

One thing that does play into this is a matter of philosophy. Which matters more to the front office: one exceptional skill, or a versatile toolbox that can be used in different ways? The Steelers tend to look for the latter. The F.O. has historically focused on multifaceted players who let the coaches use multiple defensive tactics with the same set of personnel. Other teams look more for specialists who can come in and do one particular job at an exceptional level. Seattle is a good example. Both approaches work.

The Steelers' 2-4-5 and 1-5-5 Sub Package Looks

Way back in 2009 a BTSC poster named Romain El 82 did a Fanpost on the "new" Steeler sub package looks. The 1-5-5 look is the infamous floating amoeba. I leave you to look at the Fanpost for more. The 2-4-5, however, has evolved into a fairly common package and therefore deserves a deeper look. I will let you in on the conclusion right now: finding someone to rotate in for sub package work is a major goal of the Pittsburgh draft, and it will be hard to find such a player after the first two rounds.

We saw above that the 3-4-4 personnel package has several optional formations built in. The same is true of the 2-4-5 Nickel. So this is another case where I'm talking about what is more common rather than what is true and false. With that said, the vanilla version of the Steeler Nickel presents two DL's in a two-gapping 2-tech position (aligned directly over the OG's). The idea is to have those two defenders hold up against all three interior offensive linemen (the Center and two OG's). Since it's a two gapping role you'd typically want long and strong players with the athletic ability to move from side to side if a play goes off-tackle. And since it's toward the inside you'd want players somewhat larger than your standard 5-tech. What you don't need is an explosive penetrator.

The Steelers almost inevitably relied on Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt to be that front-2. It added up to a lot of snaps over the course of the year. So much so that even Heyward was asking for help by the time the season ended. They did not get these snaps because they are DE's, they got them because they are both extraordinary athletes. The versatility to play both the 5-tech and the 2-tech at such a high level is very rare. When Tuitt got hurt, Steve McLendon stepped in as a natural 0- or 1-tech guy moving out to the 2-tech position (versus in from the 5-tech). He did the job adequately enough but there was a noticeable step down. It's one of those cases where a "very good" player is simply not the same as an "almost great" one, and the difference is easy to see. Cam Thomas had a few shots at this too. The difference was even more profound.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a "pure" 2-tech player, and if there was the Steelers would hesitate to draft him. What they will be looking for are the measurements and athletic talents. A 5-tech with the ability to move in would be fine, and would also serve as a rotational backup for Heyward and Tuitt in the base 3-4 personnel package. A NT with enough movement athleticism to slide along the line would also do the job, a la McLendon but possibly that little bit better. But leaving this draft with no one who can rotate into the defensive front on Nickel downs would be a recipe for disaster. One season ending injury to either Heyward or Tuitt could easily reduce a Super Bowl favorite into a squad with a serious hole.

Could the Steelers Do Something Radical in the 2016 Draft, Like Picking A 3-Tech?

This part is based on Matt Bowen's 4-3 Article. I'm going to be even briefer than I was before because what I'm trying to get at is the question that follows.

A good 4-3 defense is built on two Defensive Tackles who line up in the A- and B-gaps, on the outside shoulder of the Center and Guard respectively. The 3-tech who penetrates into the B-gap is the one who gets the big money, though both matter a lot. The model 3-tech is a player like Geno Atkins or Aaron Donald; massive yes, but above all possessed of a first step so quick that the Center and Guards routinely need help from other linemen. It's another way of creating the same kind of numbers advantage we saw from the 2-gapping approach the Steelers had. FWIW, Joe Greene was probably the best 1- and 3-gap penetrator in the history of football. He often commanded triple teams.

3-tech penetrators do not fit a two-gap style of defense, just as two-gapping 0- and 5-techs do not fit your classic 4-3. That is what pundits mean when they say a given defensive lineman is great for one kind of defense but not for the other. And now it's time for that question: Why not try to use both tactics?

I said above that the definitions we grew up with are outdated, and that clever coordinators focus more on the mix of talents and tactics than they do on particular systems. Keith Butler is a lot more than just "clever." So none of us should have any doubt that Butler would find a score of wicked ways to Geno Atkins if the football gods dropped such a player into the Pittsburgh lineup. So why not try?

BTSC has an endless debate about this every year. What should Colbert do if a premium 3-tech talent happened to fall to Pittsburgh's pick? I can summarize it from memory. One side inevitably points to the salary cap realities. Treating a guy like Aaron Donald or Cam Heyward as a specialist means removing him from the field at all other times. The salary cap would eventually make it impossible to retain a talent like that at an acceptable price-per-snap salary. The same people then add that putting a specialist onto the field amounts to a giant "Caution!" sign that warns the offense what's coming.

The other side then points to teams like the Seahawks. The idea is, "You may have an easier time figuring out what we're going to do, but good luck stopping it." Which is better: a "special" 3-tech, or a "mere" 1st-Round talent who can do other things too?

Whether it's really a preference in the Front Office or the simple fact that prime 3-techs go off the board so quickly, the team has not been presented with a real dilemma about whether a penetrating DT would provide the most bang for its 1st-Round buck. This year might be different. Consider:

  • There is a short-term solution to the salary cap part of the problem. Rookie contracts. If the Steelers drafted a top-notch 3-tech, they'd have him for about 4-5 years before the salary cap realities made it impossible to maintain the unit intact. That's not a great way to build your team long-term, but at this point in Steeler history the team has a franchise QB with just about that much time left before he retires.
  • Another factor is the general need for depth on the defensive line. There is room for a special talent to carve himself a special niche without displacing a valuable generalist who is already on the roster.
  • Third, we know that Coach Butler is willing to make changes, like using a bit more of the Eagle 3-4 and a bit less of the Okie that Coach Lebeau pioneered. Might he also be willing to rotate in more specialty players in a Seahawky approach?
  • And then there's the fact that this year's defensive line class has an extraordinary amount of quality in the first three or four rounds. With so many linemen to choose from the odds are that much better that a "special" 3-tech will be available when the Steelers go on the clock. If there's a "special" 3-tech on the Board and a "mere 1st-Round" 0- or 5-tech, what would be the proper move? The prospect who offers more bang per snap, or the one who will give you more snaps and a longer Pittsburgh career?

Pittsburgh's "Wants" Going In To The 2016 Draft

If we assume that Steve McLendon gets re-signed, the Steelers will go into the draft with a number of "wants" but no particular "needs" along the defensive line. Here is a summary of what the roster will look like going into the draft:

  • Cam Heyward. A perennial all-pro DE in the making, and an ace in the 2-4-5 sub package.
  • Stephon Tuitt. a bookend DE who's barely a year behind his linemate in the base 3-4-4 and almost as good already in the 2-4-5 sub package.

Then there is:

  • Steve McLendon. A solid (if improvable) NT with the ability to be a quality backup at DE and to play in the 2-4-5 sub packages.

The problems start after that, and they are not the sort of thing that the team can leave alone:

  • Dan McCullers. He could mature into a great, immovable 0-tech NT. Or not. We've seen ample evidence of both. But despite his extraordinary length we've seen no evidence that he has the mobility to double as either a 5-tech DE in the base package or as a 2-tech in the Nickel.
  • LT Walton. Rumor has it that LT Walton is going to be a much better player than his late round position in last year's draft would suggest. He may well be a viable backup as a 5-tech in the base 3-4. Hopefully he will. Guessing that he will be more than that is heading toward the world of fantasy for now. He can't be projected as a backup NT, nor as a rotational 2-tech in the sub package game.
  • Cam Thomas. I'm not a hater.
  • Clifton Geathers. I'm really not. A realist, yes; a hater, no.

"Finding someone to rotate in for sub package work is a major goal of the Pittsburgh draft, and it will be hard to find such a player after the first two rounds."

In short, Pittsburgh has room for all of the following improvements:

WANT #1: A #3 DE who can rotate in with Heyward and Tuitt in the base 3-4. If we are lucky this could be LT Walton.

WANT #2: A better Nose Tackle than Steve McLendon, who is good but not great. Note that this would simultaneously free McLendon up to serve as the world's best across-the-line swing player (see Want #4). We aren't yet sure if Dan McCullers is a viable backup to McLendon. Projecting him as a substitute is a much bigger stretch.

WANT #3 - A talent good enough to rotate with Heyward and Tuitt in the 2-4-5 Nickel and other sub packages. This is the biggest hole, and the one that definitely is not on the roster right now. It's also a hole that won't be fixed outside of the 1st or 2nd Round. On the other hand, it could be fixed as easily by another great 5-tech DE who can move inside, as it could be by a great NT who can slide outside. In other words, an answer to Want #3 will almost certainly sole Want #1 or Want #2 at the same time.

WANT #4 - A flex player who could back up at any spot across the line. Heyward, Tuitt and McLendon all have the ability to do this but are too valuable as starters to be considered that way. Anyone who can fill Want #1 or Want #2 would thus free a current player to be the defensive multitool even if he didn't have that ability on his own. This is also true of LT Walton and Dan McCullers. If either of them can step up in 2016, the team's overall depth on the defensive line will improve dramatically.

WANT #5 - A penetrating 3-technique who would add new spice to the 2-4-5 package and allow Coach Butler to rotate into true 4-3 looks as desired. A true long shot, but what the heck. I'm a blogger, right? It's my job to create controversy.

The Soon To Be Legendary Defensive Line Class of 2016

1:01

Joey Bosa, EDGE/DL, Ohio State - 6'5, 275 lbs. Going in the top 5. Period. End of story. No need to waste any more space. For those who are not Bosa lovers, I suggest this Bleacher Report scouting report as a good source of ammunition. It makes some good arguments that Bosa ought to be a mid-1st pick rather than a Top-5 in a duly respectful manner that does not knock how great a compliment it is to be a Round 1 pick in the first place.

WANT #1

WANT #2

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WANT #4

WANT #5

1:05

DeForest Buckner, DL, Oregon - 6'7", 290 lbs. If you could design the perfect physical specimen to play 3-4 DE he'd be something like 6-6" to 6-7", weigh just short of 300 pounds, and have the movement skills associated with an NBA star. If you fudge a little on the movement skills that's pretty much what you get with DeForest Buckner. He's every bit the prospect that Stephon Tuitt was coming out and maybe better. In fact that analogy may be the best way to imagine why he's ranked so high. How good would the D-line be with Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and a Stephon Tuitt clone? That's how good it would be with DeForest Buckner. Awesome.

This is a nice scouting report to start with. The summary would be, "an ideal 3-4 DE who's terribly raw on pass rushing skills." For a more enthusiastic version, try this scouting report that pegs Buckner as no worse than a top-15 draft pick. Likewise this scouting report from retired NFL exec Greg Gabriel, who may have provided the best one-liner we'll see all season: "WEAK POINTS: He doesn't have a twin brother." This scouting report from our favorite source in Texas does a great job of explaining why Buckner fits a team like the Steelers but not a team like the Cowboys. This DraftWire scouting report is about as negative as I've seen, nitpicking a grade all the way down to the late 1st (I wish!). This link goes to one of Dave Te Thomas' epic-length scouting reports, with a statistical analysis companion piece that makes for interesting reading too.

WANT #1

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1:15

Andrew Billings, DL, Baylor - 6'2", 310 lbs. Note that he won't turn 20 until March of 2016. An overpowering fireplug who reminds this writer a lot of the mountain formerly known as Big Snack, right down to his origins in the heart of Texas. Here is a scouting report from our own Fear94 ("Andrew Billings is an immovable monster"). This goes to a second BTSC scouting report, this time by Andrew Kipp. Andrew sees Billings as a pure 0-technique Nose Tackle in the Casey Hampton mold. This goes to a scouting report from DraftWire, which ends with a "mid to late 1st" grade and the suggestion that he would thrive best as a single-gap 1-technique rather than a true two-gapping, 0-tech Nose Tackle. This long news/interest article provides a ton of background and is worth a read. This early-process scouting report will get you started, even though it projects Billings more as a penetrating 3-technique than a true O-technique Nose Tackle. This is a great gif-supported scouting report from a reliable source in Dallas. I wish I'd thought of these quips on my own. "He is simply so gifted that you can see the dread of the opposing interior linemen that must deal with him all afternoon... There isn't much not to like, other than the fact that football does allow an offense to game-plan to avoid destroyers at DT to a certain extent."

WANT #1

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WANT #3

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WANT #5

1:20

Jarran Reed, DL, Alabama - 6'3-1/4", 311 lbs. with 32" arms and massive 10-3/4" hands. He and his teammate A'Shawn Robinson are all but clones from the draft perspective, and the biggest question for both is the extent to which the other has artificially enhanced the film. This Draft Wire scouting report ranks Reed as the better of the two, summarizing his game as follows: "Reed is a dominant two-gapper who plays with exceptional leverage and power at the point of attack." This scouting report from our favorite writer in Dallas ends with a fringe-1st grade on the basis that Reed's lack of tackles-for-loss in college indicates someone who will be a one-gapping run-stuffer only at the NFL level. If Mr. Sturm is right, I would put the grade even lower. The ability to play in sub packages is the entire question. The NFL.com scouting profile has a similar theme: great run stuffer, but a guy to be subbed off the field on passing downs. This gif-supported scouting report from our sister site for the Redskins reaches the same conclusion: A+ grade for run stuffing, but C for pass rush. This gif-supported scouting report from a Bills site argues that Jarran Reed "can play all three positions within Ryan's 3-4 system," is particularly adept at two-gapping, and has the mobility to be a real force in sub packages. It this reviewer is right... You get the idea. This scouting profile from a Lions site focuses on Detroit's need for a run stuffer, and could not be more enthusiastic since no one doubts he will excel in that role. This brief scouting profile sees him as a pure run stuffer. This is a fairly nice scouting profile.

In this ESPN article during the Senior Bowl (where Reed was a star), the player himself said that a primary goal at the Senior Bowl was to display his versatility and to prove that even though he played more 3-technique than anything else at Alabama, "he feels equally comfortable everywhere from the 5-technique (defensive end) to the 0 (nose tackle)". No doubt that was music to the Steelers' ears, but we still have to decide if he was simply playing the right tune. This Senior Bowl week article ran on Redskins.com and this article ran at Detroitlions.com. Both emphasize Reed's effort to show versatility that would carry over into sub packages. The Senior Bowl performance convinced this Texans-oriented article that Jarran Reed has the versatility he claims. Search for Reed in this Bleacher Report Senior Bowl wrap-up article for further evidence of how dominant he looked. This goes to an article on Reed's decision to return to Alabama for his Senior year.

WANT #1

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WANT #5

1:20

A'Shawn Robinson, DL, Alabama - 6'3", 320 lbs. Note that he won't turn 21 until March of 2016. Robinson could easily go in the top 10 and probably will. He offers a little less value to the Steelers because Defensive Line is a "want" more than a "need," but the talent is so immense that he'd probably be worth it anyway. This combination scouting report (Sheldon Day, Sheldon Rankins, A'Shawn Robinson) summarizes things in a way that I think will match the common wisdom come draft day:

"His athleticism is hard to figure out because most plays he doesn't look like an elite athlete of any sort, but one or two plays a game he will make a play that shows unreal athleticism... that is very unique... Will always be a plus player in run game."

For an example of that unreal athleticism check this out - that is a 315 lb. man doing a Polamalu leap. That kind of athletic genius leads to rosy scouting report like this on, which argues that any grade out of the top 15 would be a shock. But Robinson also has his detractors, such as this able critique in the Draft Wire scouting report. That author concludes with a 4th-Round grade based on his belief that Robinson has a slew of flaws that were hidden by having so many great talents around him on the Alabama line (which in 2015 was among the best ever in college football). This scouting report presents a fairly balanced viewpoint.

WANT #1

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1:25

Kenny Clark, DL, UCLA - 6'2", 310 lbs. Note that he won't turn 21 until October of 2016. Another short, uber-powerful run stuffer with the potential to raise Pittsburgh's D-line toward best-in-the-league status. I particularly like his background as a High School wrestling champion, though I do acknowledge the possibility that he'll never have the stamina/speed to be a 3-down lineman rather than a straight, 2-down run stuffer. Here is a nice late December scouting report from Bucky Brooks to get you started. This scouting report summarizes Clark as a great run-stuffer who'll have to come off the field on passing downs. This goes to the DraftWire scouting report, which gives Clark a 1st-Round grade.

WANT #1

WANT #2

WANT #3 (?)

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WANT #5

1:25

Austin Johnson, DL, Penn State - 6'4-3/8", 323 lbs. with 32-3/8" arms. Your basic immovable object at the center of the line with just a touch extra in the speed and motor departments, but without the quick-twitch fibers that would elevate him to the realm of would-be legends. This is a recent scouting report from a favorite writer down in Dallas. This is a scouting report from way back in August but it wouldn't change much if you added in the 2015 year. Monstrously big, massively strong, and faster than you'd expect with a long record of nonstop effort. He doesn't take plays off, which is unusual for a man that size. In another year he'd be a clear target in the back of the 1st. This year he's on the fringe between 1 and 2 despite having a great Senior Bowl. Here is a nice article on his decision to go pro. This goes to an article on the SB Nation site for Penn State, a sort of useful retrospective on Johnson's career there. This gif-supported scouting report from our sister site for the Jaguars describes Johnson as a prototypical 1-tech.

WANT #1

WANT #2

WANT #3 (?)

WANT #4

WANT #5

1:25

Vernon Butler, NT, Louisiana Tech - 6'3-7/8", 325 lbs. Butler fits the perfect profile of a fringe-1st nose tackle. He has the size, strength, energy, and surprising quickness you look for, combined with enough technical flaws to require expert coaching. The particular problem appears to be a tendency to play a bit high, which is exceptionally common in men his size and something Coach Mitchell is good at fixing. He looked great at the Senior Bowl, which solidified his 2nd-Round grade on this Board. It might have been enough to push him even higher in a class that was less stacked at the position. Here is an optimistic scouting report to get you started.

WANT #1

WANT #2

WANT #3 (?)

WANT #4

WANT #5

1:25

Sheldon Rankins, DL, Louisville - 6'1-1/2", 304 lbs. with 32-3/4" arms. Sheldon Rankins has jumped up this Board after closer study showed that he is capable of handling the two-gap duties required of a Pittsburgh lineman (in addition to being a great 3-tech prospect for a 4-3). From our own Steel34D:

Put on his tape and you see him playing the 5-tech, you see him lined up over the nose and you see him a lot in the 2-4-5 package. You can see powerful heavy hands with good hand placement, the ability to see past his blocker into the backfield and the quickness to disengage from the block . Those are what you look for when you ask can this player survive as a 2-gap player. He has the strength and the leverage to take on double teams despite being only 304 pounds. When he wasn't 2-gapping he showed the lateral quickness and lower body explosiveness to beat linemen. Then you see the quickness and active hands to suggest he can make an impact as a pass rusher. His leverage and explosiveness make for a deadly bull rush. Though he is still working on this phase of the game.

Rankins reminds me of Mike Daniels the defensive end for the Green Bay Packers. Coming out of Iowa Daniels fell because he was 6-foot-1, 291 pounds at the Combine 310 current playing weight, with 32 1/2 inch arm length. Daniels fell in the draft to the fourth round because many thought he was too small to play on the interior but didn't have the length to play on the outside. Daniels [is now a rising star in similar defensive system]. Rankins has similar athletic ability but heavier hands, better play against double teams and experience 2-gapping in odd fronts.

This article gushes that he could easily go in the 1st, and this article is much the same ("Is he the next Aaron Donald?"). Mike Mayock called him a "quick one-gap penetrator [and] a borderline 1st-round pick" (go to the 2-minute mark if you want to be especially impressed). This goes to the official Senior Bowl profile (and yes, Rankins answered every one of the listed questions during the practices). Here is a good and fairly detailed scouting report to get you started. Go here if you want a massive level of detail in a scouting profile; it comes from Dave Te Thomas, who tends to go a bit overboard. This more summary scouting report points out that Rankins is a better prospect for 4-3 defenses than a place like Pittsburgh. This is a scouting report with awful formatting but decent substance; it's worth a read to keep filling in the gaps. This pre-Senior Bowl combination scouting report (Sheldon Day, Sheldon Rankins, A'Shawn Robinson) lauds Robinson's active hands, overall technique, and nonstop motor, but in a way that also leads to the conclusion that he'd fit better in a 4-3.

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2:01

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State - 6'6", 308 lbs. There are two extraordinary players at the top of the Board who would play Defensive End (5-tech) in the Pittsburgh scheme: Joey Bosa and DeForest Buckner. Neither will fall out of the Top 10 unless there's something truly wrong in the world. After those two comes what future years may see as a legendary series inside tackles who will have long and successful careers playing positions from the 0-techique (a true over-the-Center Nose Tackle) out through the 3-technique (dominant inside penetrators like Geno Atkins. But you don't really get to another true 5-tech prospect until Chris Jones. He's strong and fast enough to move inside as needed - which is good because it means he can rotate in for the 2-4-5 Nickel package - but he also has the length and basketball background that the Steelers like for their Defensive Ends. Keep an eye on this one.

This goes to the NFL.com scouting profile, which is usually a fine place to start. This gif-heavy scouting report from a Bills site shows Jones' versatility by including snaps from the 0-tech nose position all the way out, before concluding that he "is an ideal left defensive end in a 3-4 defensive front, where he would align as a five-technique (over the tackle) on base downs and slide inside to the three or one technique in sub-packages." As the fisherman from Maine said about his 16 pound newborn: "Ayuh. That's a keepah." We don't usually quote the CBS scouting report because we rely on one for every single player, but this particular profile has a noteworthy conclusion: "Jones is still raw in several areas, but it's easy to see the potential due to his foot quickness and body type. Although he shows 1st round flashes, it comes in spurts and the impact of his body of work doesn't warrant that high of a selection." This year, with this class, he could even be available when the Steelers pick in Round 2, which might be the bargain of the year. This goes to a good if more summary scouting profile. This Bleacher Report article considers him a 1st-Round fringe contender.

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2:12

Carl Nassib, DE/EDGE, Penn State - 6'6", 270 lbs. [ASSUMES HE CAN ADD 30 POUNDS OF PURE MUSCLE TO BECOME A 5-TECH] This is the sort of kid you root for. He graduated from a Philly-area High School as a 215 beanpole, walked on at Penn State, and by dint of sheer, hard work has turned himself into a full sized, NFL caliber player who led the nation in sacks. Even his coach didn't believe it was possible - at first. But he did - as nicely discussed in this article. Now he faces questions about whether he can make the next step. This scouting report focuses on the key question: what is his upside? This scouting report agrees that the main limitations come down to pure physical talent. Nassib is something of a straight-line, non-explosive athlete whose SPARQ scores aren't going to wow you. I tend to be an upside-oriented reviewer who values athleticism a bit more than he should, but in this case I'm setting that aside. Carl Nassib is a kid you've got to root for.

Besides, there's something to be said for having an extraordinary floor even if your ceiling could be debated. As discussed in the CBS scouting report, this is a kid who's all effort, all the time, and leaves absolutely nothing on the field by the end of the day. There's more in the way of sheer, tenacious "Wanna" inside that former beanpole than you're likely to see from anyone else in the draft. To my mind that equates to someone who won't end up worse that a solid journeyman for a good many years.

Finally, there are legitimate questions about what position he could play in the Pittsburgh scheme. Would he be an oversized, edge-setting OLB? Or will he pack on another 20 pounds of muscle and turn into a particularly nimble Defensive End? This scouting report from retired NFL exec Greg Gabriel favors the 3-4 DE position, and suggests starter potential from Year 2 on. This fine scouting report from a reliable Cowboys writer examines both the detailed upside and the question marks, before avoiding an actual conclusion by noting that Nassib is "creeping up" toward the top-50 lists - meaning late 2nd round in my book.

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2:12

Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss - 6'3", 300 lbs. This is a shockingly low grade for a player who many see as the best player in the entire draft, and who may well go in the top 5. The issue is off-the-field stuff, as touched on in the Walter Football summary. For more detail see this ESPN article and this article from NFL.com (which uses words like "bizarre" and "strange"). Or this article from Bleacher Report citing a scout who says Nkemdiche is: "really a different kid. He may scare some people. He's strange strange." It doesn't help that his even stranger older brother seems to be attached at the hip. Not the kind of support network an immature but super-talented kid really needs. Here's a video discussion from Bleacher Report that might also help to understand the off-field concerns. Basically, there's a lot of marijuana smoke floating around and a good amount of the general, juvenile stupidity that's been getting so many players in trouble over recent years. As this surprisingly good scouting report from NFL Draft Geek concludes, "We put Nkemdiche's chances of succeeding at 33/67; with no middle ground. 33% chance he's a superstar, and 67% chance he completely flames out."

This scouting report from a favorite writer in Dallas is a definite place to start if you want to understand the debate from a football point of view. ("[Given all the hype] when you start watching him, you are expecting to see a player who walks on football water. And I did. There are several highlights that show him doing things that normal humans can only dream of doing). Wow. This excellent, gif-supported scouting report from our sister site for the Chargers rates Nkemdiche as a Top-5 talent. This is a nice summary scouting report on the football skills (more of a DE than a NT from the Pittsburgh point of view). This nice December scouting report is similar.

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2:24

Adolphus Washington, DL, Ohio State - 6'3-1/2", 297 lbs. with 34" arms. Something of a tweener from the Pittsburgh point of view, Washington has good but not great length, size, strength and quickness. The combination makes him a solid candidate from the Steelers' favorite school, but maybe a better fit as a 4-3 DT than a 3-4 end or nose tackle. There was a minor kerfuffle at the end of the year when he was arrested for misdemeanor ($100) solicitation of a supposed "lady of the street." Urban Meyer was apparently more upset that Washington went to the meeting with a loaded pistol, even though it was properly licensed. IMHO it's hard to see how that bears on his draftability. This goes to one of Dave Te Thomas' epic-length scouting profiles. Thomas describes Washington as a much better athlete than others tend to believe, with an extensive basketball background. Thomas also argues that Washington's "ability to easily contain multiple blockers freed up line mate Joey Bosa" to do the sort of damage that's going to make Bosa a Top-5 pick. Alas, but Thomas also concludes that Washington is "an ideal fit for playing the three-technique tackle position" - which would make him a poor fit for the Steelers. The Ziggy Hood adventure proved that even a potentially special 3-tech won't be able to do the jobs that Pittsburgh requires. OTOH, he does have those ridiculously long arms...

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3:01

Matt Ioannidis, DE, Temple - 6'3-3/4", 303 lbs. Looking for an ideal 3-4 Defensive End to back up Heyward and Tuitt? This is your guy. He's one of my favorite sleepers, especially since some very impressive showings at the Senior Bowl (here is link #2 on the Senior Bowl practice sessions).

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3:01

Bronson Kaufusi, DE, BYU - 6'6-1/2", 281 lbs. with very long 34-1/8" arms. [ASSUMES HE CAN ADD 20 POUNDS OF PURE MUSCLE TO BECOME A 5-TECH] Here's the deal: Kaufusi is about 20 pounds short of fitting the ideal Steeler profile for a 3-4 Defensive End, and it looks like he has the room to do that - particularly from the waist down. He's got that basketball background the Steelers love, all the length you could ask for, a tremendous football IQ, high marks for character, and even pretty good technique for a college player (pad level, forward lean, hand fighting, etc.). The only issue is size, and in college it was a big on. BYU listed him in the 260's and people doubted whether he was really even that big. A careful search would find speculation that he played as low as the 240's because he was trying (and failing) to establish himself as a bona fide edge rusher - and at 6'6" that means he was the next thing to a stringpole. Even worse, the lack of bulk equated directly and obviously to a lack of sheer strength and the ability to withstand both double teams and the general wash of a running play. Every single review you read will point that out as his Achilles heel (with secondary marks going to age because he spent two years on his Mormon mission and is therefore in his mid-20's rather than his early 20's). Fast forward to the Senior Bowl, however, and you'll see Kaufusi checking in at 281. So it's clear he heard the criticism and is working on it. One has to assume that an NFL training regime will be enough to finish the job, at least from Year 2 or 3 onward. To my mind that makes him a top-notch target from Round 3 on. Note that Kaufusi's pass-rushing problems at the Senior Bowl were significant enough that I do not consider him an Edge guy at all. He either bulks up to be a 3-4 Defensive End or he has no fit with Pittsburgh.

This scouting profile comes from a Patriots site and concludes with a fringe-2nd grade. I concur. This goes to a generally positive scouting profile from retired NFL Executive Greg Gabriel, which includes speculation that Kaufusi might bulk up to play the 5-technique. This is a typical scouting profile but useful to keep filling in a few more dots of the overall picture.

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3:01

Jihad Ward, DE, Illinois - 6'5", 295 lbs. Another model 5-technique who'd make a wonderful bit of depth behind Heyward and Tuitt. Ward raised his stock hugely with an outstanding week of practice at the Senior Bowl where he was spotted in conversation with Mike Tomlin and has since been labeled as one of the "biggest risers" due to his performance. Notes emphasize his surprising amount of speed and agility. As discussed in this scouting report from our sister site for the Panthers (which suggests an early 2nd round grade if you read between the lines), Ward even has the basketball background that the Steelers covet in their D-linemen. Sounds ideal! This goes to a gif-supported scouting report from Bleacher Report.

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3:24

Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor - 6'7-1/2", 269 lbs. [ASSUMES HE CAN ADD 30 POUNDS OF PURE MUSCLE TO BECOME A 5-TECH] There's not going to be a more divisive prospect in this year's draft. Oakman looks like he should be a football god, but the tape-watchers all say that his actual performance in 2015 was average at best. On the other hand, the 2014 tape was much better and there were rumors of an injury... A big part of the problem is that he was terribly over-hyped, and now the reality pales so much in comparison that he's getting over-knocked. This is a fairly conservative grade all things considered because (a) the Steelers could really use some depth behind Heyward and Tuitt, and (b) I have the impression that Oakman's shortcomings on the technique side are the kind of things Coach Mitchell excels at teaching, but (c) I think he has zero chance of contributing to this particular team in 2015. In my humble opinion, outside of special teams Oakman has no spot on the Steeler roster at his current size and weight, but should be able to add 20 pounds of muscle to his lower half. After that you'd be looking at a genuine 2nd round value who'd be a 4th round steal from a long term point of view. This excellent scouting report from Bob Sturm in Dallas is a good place to start. You should also check out this article on Oakman's background. This goes to the full Walter Football scouting report, which concludes with a Round 2-3 grade. This goes to a combination scouting profile on Shawn Oakman and Noah Spence from retired NFL executive Greg Gabriel. This goes to a more summary but still useful scouting profile. This is a more positive scouting report that looks at Oakman purely as a 4-3 pass rusher.

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4:16

D.J. Reader, NT, Clemson - 6'3", 340 lbs. with 32-5/8" arms. Your classic immovable object at the center of the defensive line. If the team thinks that Dan McCullers has no chance to take the next step, D.J. Reader would be a comparable Day 3 pick with a slightly better pedigree.  This goes to the NFL.com scouting profile. This gif-supported scouting report from a Bills perspective argues that he's more mobile than you'd think and deserves a Round 3-4 grade. This goes to a very summary scouting profile.

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5:01

Javon Hargrave, DL, South Carolina State - 6'1", 315 lbs. A solid developmental guy who could develop into the next Steve McLendon. He's got decent size, nice quickness, good power, and showed some real dominance at the Shrine game. This scouting profile from a Panthers point of view appeared soon afterwards. He's too short to be an across-the-line guy for the Steelers, which limits his value on this Board a bit.

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6:16

Darius Latham, DE, Indiana - 6'5", 305 lbs. Who? How did a guy with a UDFA grade on CBS and no grade at all on Walter Football make it onto this list as a viable 6th-Round value for Pittsburgh? It's because I am officially declaring him as a sleeper who may be able to develop into the backup that Pittsburgh wants behind Heyward and Tuitt. Read this long article/scouting profile from Dave Te Thomas and then tell me if you disagree. Latham has the size, length, and basketball background that Pittsburgh looks for in its Defensive Ends. He excels at run-stuffing, but also has a bit of twitch when needed. If the D-line has gone unaddressed when the Steelers' 7th-Round picks come around, don't be at all surprised if Latham is named as one of them. You heard it hear first.

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6:16

Dean Lowry, DL, Northwestern - 6'5", 305 lbs. As the NFL.com scouting profile say, Lowry has a classic frame to play 3-4 Defensive End. He also gets props for being a high-effort guy and a good teammate. Limitations include arms on the short side for such a tall man, and some overall limitations as an athlete when graded on the NFL curve. His standout performance at the Shrine Game moved him well into draftability and earned him an invite to the NFL Combine, so we will have a chance to learn more. This article from a local news source contain a long set of quotes from various pundits, which almost serves as a proper scouting profile.

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And finally, the elite 3-tech guys who could make a real difference in sub packages but would not play in the base 3-4. All of the following players have the skill to be picked in Round 1 by a needy 4-3 team.

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Jonathan Bullard, DL, Florida - 6'3", 283 lbs. Another hugely talented 3-tech who's downgraded on our Board for lack of fit with the Pittsburgh defense. Elsewhere he's a starter and a star; in Pittsburgh he'd be a potent role player. As you can see from this adoring scouting report from the Draft Wire and this more measured scouting report from retired NFL exec Greg Gabriel, Jonathan Bullard's best asset is a tremendously quick first step, which gets him an initial advantage his long arms, decent technique, and excellent strength can build on to produce results. Bullard would be dropped even lower on this Board but he is long enough to present an outside chance of growing into a "hybrid" instead of a "tweener." 36-inch arms would have been nice... Scroll down a bit in this set of scouting profiles and you'll find a pretty good one on Bullard. There is a nice bit on Jonathan in this set of scouting profiles on this year's Edge Rushers.

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2:24

Sheldon Day, DL, Notre Dame - 6'3/4", 286 lbs. Once again we face the dilemma of awarding a totally unfair grade for a player who may be a star in a different system. Sheldon Day is your classic, cat-quick, undersized, 3-tech penetrator for a 4-3 defensive line. Think "Aaron Donald Lite" and you won't be far off. He also has an extensive history of injuries, which doesn't bode well for the higher level. Despite that, if the Steelers defense relied on players with this particular skill set he would have a 3rd-Round grade. They don't, and thus the current grade. Probably belongs on the Ain't Gonna Happen List.

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3:01

Emmanuel Ogbah, DL/EDGE, Oklahoma State - 6'3", 275 lbs. Don't get me wrong - I think Emmanual Ogbah could be a fine Round 1 pick for a 4-3 team in search of an explosive 3-tech Defensive Tackle. Unfortunately, in Pittsburgh that particular skill set only has value for sub packages and surprise formations, not as part of the base defense. That reduces his grade to the point where there's not any real hope that he'll be worth a Steeler pick. OTOH, we can have a lot of fun imagining all the unique packages Keith Butler would design around Ogbah's ability to shift between being an undersized (for the Steelers) DE and an oversized (for the Steelers) OLB in the Lamarr Woodley mold. Here is a quick scouting report from back in November. This goes to a gif-supported scouting report from our sister site for the Giants. Scroll down a bit in this set of scouting profiles and you'll find a pretty good one on Ogbah. This DraftWire scouting report has some hefty critique of Ogbah's motor too, which results in a Round 3 grade even as a 4-3 Defensive End. There is a nice bit on Emannuel Ogbah in this set of scouting profiles on this year's Edge Rushers.

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Name

#1

(DE)

#2

(NT)

#3

(Nickel)

#4

(Multitool)

#5

(3-tech)

Jarran Reed. Can do everything, but may lag in pass rush.

YES

YES

YES

YES

A'Shawn Robinson. Can do everything, but may lag in motor (if you believe such a thing is possible in a Pittsburgh locker room under Coach Mitchell).

YES

YES

YES

YES

YES

Joey Bosa. Ain't Gonna Happen. Native 4-3 DE.

YES

YES

YES

DeForest Buckner. Ain't Gonna Happen. Better prospect than Heyward or Tuitt as a 5-tech.

YES

YES

YES

Sheldon Rankins. A superb 4-3 gap shooter (3-tech) who two-gapped enough in college to prove he can do it in the NFL too

YES

YES

YES

Chris Jones. 5-tech DE with fringe-1st talent but not a "special."

YES

YES

YES

Carl Nassib. A fun projection as a 5-tech DE if he can add 30 lbs.

YES

YES

Robert Nkemdiche. Top 5 talent on the field, UDFA off the field.

YES

YES

YES

YES

Adolphus Washington. More of a 4-3 guy, but has such long arms that he's a tweener.

YES

YES

YES

Bronson Kaufusi. A fun projection as a 5-tech DE if he can add 30 lbs.

YES

YES

Shawn Oakman. A fun projection as a 5-tech DE if he can add 30 lbs.

YES

YES

Matt Ioannidis. A Round 3-4 DE. Can he help in the Nickel?

YES

???

Jihad Ward. A Round 3-4 DE. Can he help in the Nickel?

YES

???

Darius Latham. A late round DE prospect.

YES

Dean Lowry. A late round DE prospect.

YES

Andrew Billings. A superb 1-tech who can play 0-tech NT and help in the Nickel. 20 years old.

YES

YES

Kenny Clark A superb 1-tech who can play 0-tech NT and may be able to help in the Nickel. 20 years old.

YES

???

Austin Johnson. A natural NT with the motor of the gods. But can he help in the Nickel?

YES

???

YES

Vernon Butler A natural NT. But can he help in the Nickel?

YES

???

YES

DJ Reader. An immovable colossus in the center of the line.

YES

Emmanuel Ogbah. A superb 4-3 gap shooter (7-tech DE and also 3-tech DT).

YES

YES

Jonathan Bullard. A superb 4-3 gap shooter (3-tech)

YES

YES

Sheldon Day. A superb 4-3 gap shooter (3-tech)

YES

YES

Javon Hargrave. A late round prospect with tremendous versatility.

YES

???