One of the biggest surprises of the OTA season has defensive end Al Woods playing at nose tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers
In Pittsburgh, positional flexibility has been the sustenance on which many players careers have survived. Woods is taking every opportunity to secure his spot on the final roster when cuts are made prior the regular season. Unfortunately, instant assumptions have begun to read too much into his new additional role.
The Steelers have learned a very valuable lesson over the past few seasons -- you have to be ready for anything. When establishing depth behind entrenched starters, the front office has begun to place an emphasis on flexibility. Undrafted Ramon Foster signed a new contract with the team this off-season because of his ability to play multiple positions at the professional level. Kelvin Beachum is performing the same experiment as he attempts to learn everything about interior line play, while having six NFL starts at tackle on his record.
Woods is trying to be the Foster or Beachum of the defensive line. First-round picks Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward will remain above Woods on the depth chart with veteran Brett Keisel, regardless of Woods multi-tasking; but Woods has been solid in reserve of Hood at end and has experience in the defense. Being able to step in at nose-tackle only increases his advantage over his closest pre-season competition - rookies Nicholas Williams, Brian Arnfelt and Cordian Hagans; but like any other speculation this time of year, it is far too early to assume he will instantly become the primary backup to presumed starter Steve McLendon.
Woods has been playing nose tackle for approximately two OTA sessions now. He has played well enough for someone making the transition, but he's not Casey Hampton. Let's also not forget all of his experience has come during short-wearing dance recitals, negating any possible relativity to reality for head coach Mike Tomlin. However, his knowledge gained of the position will make him a great emergency option.
If Woods is the second NT, something happens to Hood and then, something happens to McLendon, what happens then? Heyward could move to LE, allowing Woods to move to NT; but then you have no depth outside of promoting practice squadders.
It would seem in the team's best interests to still retain a second true NT behind McLendon, allowing Woods to be the third emergency tackle if needed. Even if Woods does earn the primary backup job behind McLendon, the team will need a third anyway. If too much stock is invested in Woods and he is injured himself, the team is losing a tackle and an end at the same time.
The team is already invested in last year's fourth-round draft pick Alameda Ta'amu, both financially and personally. Hebron Fangupo, believed to be a Steelers draft target once upon a time, was signed away from the Seattle Seahawks last year for a reason. Pittsburgh even picked up undrafted rookie Omar Hunter from Florida following the NFL Draft. Each one has the potential and the size to fill the role required from Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense, but each one needs work.
Fangupo has admitted to carrying bad habits from 4-3 tackle play to the 3-4 system. Ta'amu failed to impress in preseason opportunities last season, and Hunter is the smallest of the group. It is plausible Woods could turn out to be better than any of these three men, but it does not mean the team should not continue to develop their other young talent as well.