In the last several days, I've examined potential for improvement within the Steelers' defensive line and linebacker groups for 2015 -- but how does it look in 2016 and beyond?
Sure, you could argue I am getting ahead of myself, but looking at the make-up of the two groups, it's really pretty easy to see the plan that head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert have in place as this group moves forward.
Consider this: of the guys currently on the roster at defensive end, defensive tackle, inside linebacker and outside linebacker, an incredible five are former first-round draft picks: Lawrence Timmons in 2007, Cameron Heyward in 2011, Jarvis Jones in 2013, Ryan Shazier in 2014 and Bud Dupree in 2015. Additionally, Stephon Tuitt, a 2014 second-round pick, was thought by many to be a top-ten pick before a sports hernia and a foot fracture caused him to drop.
It would be exceedingly easy to project all of them as starters in 2016.
Sure, Jones, Shazier and Dupree are still largely unknowns at linebacker, and Tuitt -- while showing great promise in the final four games of 2014 -- has to continue to grow into his position opposite Heyward. But each of them was projected to be selected at or above their actual draft slots. And each has shown flashes, at least, of where their ceilings may be, save for Dupree, who has only been in the NFL for about a month and a half.
From the final game of 2013 through the midpoint of the third game of 2014, Jarvis Jones had three sacks in four games. The light was, it could be argued, beginning to come on, until a severe wrist injury threatened to end his entire season. He came back late in the year, but it was clear that the missed playing and practice time had put the brakes on his growth. He has, however, spent a great deal of time this off-season with 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. What effect that has remains to be see, but one thing is certain: Harrison's example may be the best possible for Jones.
Shazier, like Jones, was showing growth, until he, too, was injured early in the season. A further injury shortly after his return relegated him to backup status behind Sean Spence and Vince Williams, but Shazier still showed plenty of the speed and athleticism that got him drafted in the first place. As the game continues to slow down for these two, so too should growth and improvement.
Timmons? He's merely coming off a Pro-Bowl performance in 2014. He's also due a well-deserved contract extension after the 2015 season.
In Heyward, the team has not only an outstanding player, but also a team leader. The Pittsburgh-area native continues to improve each year, and often demonstrates the best traits of both Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, who played on the Steelers' defensive line before, and alongside, Heyward. He, too, is due a contract extension -- one that is expected by many by the time the players return to Latrobe for training camp.
The odd men out of this high-draft-pick party are the starting and backup nose tackles -- which is ironic, because their predecessor, Casey Hampton, was himself a first-round pick. As offenses spread the field more, though, the nose tackle position has been viewed with less and less of a critical eye. It's now manned by 2009 undrafted free agent Steve McLendon, and backed up by 2014 sixth-round pick Daniel McCullers.
The common thinking is McLendon will be allowed to depart in free agency in 2016, if McCullers continues to show improvement and mastery of the system and technique. He certainly could make McLendon expendable. He has shown the potential and, at 6 feet 7 inches and 350 pounds, he certainly possesses the size to be a future starter in the NFL.
Surrounded by six high-round picks in 2016, he would have the opportunity to grow into the role.
Figuratively speaking, of course.