The Steelers will hit Latrobe for Training Camp in just under two weeks as they begin their quest for a seventh Lombardi Trophy. The summer has come and gone (thankfully) with minimal excitement on the Steelers front. A truism of the NFL is that no good news can happen between the end of the Draft and the start of Training Camp. Over that time, most NFL news revolves around players getting suspended or injured. As we prepare for the formal beginning of the Steelers 2018 campaign, we’ll be taking a position-by-position look at the roster. Today we continue with the Defensive Line where the biggest change will be in the locker room as former University of Alabama position coach Karl Dunbar will replace John Mitchell this season. Mitchell is still with the team in his “Assistant Head Coach” role while Dunbar will take over the duties of defensive line coach.
By The Numbers
2017 Sacks: 23
2017 Forced Fumbles: 3
Cameron Heyward (8th year), Stephon Tuitt (5th year), Javon Hargrave (3rd year), Tyson Alualu (9th year), LT Walton (4th year), Lavon Hooks (1 year), Dan McCullers (5th year)
The top four players on the defensive line depth chart are fixed. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are both on long-term deals and are going to see the vast majority of snaps, both at the DE spots in the traditional 3-4 base and as the 2 DTs in the nickel package. Since the Steelers play in nickel over 70% of the time, the need for a true 2-gapping nose tackle is vastly diminished. Javon Hargrave has shown the be capable of slashing in and using his athleticism to get into the gaps and disrupt the pocket, but he can also get blown off the ball in run situations and doesn’t bull rush his way into blowing up the pocket. Tyson Alualu is the top backup to Heyward and Tuitt and actually out-performed Tuitt last year (though Stephon was dealing with the lingering effects of his Week 1 injury for most of the season). LT Walton is a rotational player and Daniel McCullers was re-signed to a 1-year deal for some reason. McCullers doesn’t bring much besides just being a large human, and his spot at NT is the one the Steelers are in most need of upgrading. Lavon Hooks spent last year on the practice squad and should be right in the thick of the battle for the final roster spot.
Joshua Frazier (7th round pick), Kendal Vickers (UDFA), Greg Gilmore (UDFA), Parker Cothren (UDFA), Casey Sayles (UDFA)
The Steelers threw their new positional coach a bone in the 7th round of the draft, selecting one of his college players in Joshua Frazier. That selection was the first Alabama player selected by Kevin Colbert since he became general manager of the Steelers in 2000. Frazier was mostly a backup for the Crimson Tide but has the work ethic and size (6’3″ 321 pounds) to be able to challenge Dan McCullers for the last roster spot. What the Steelers need is a guy who can lock down the inside against the run and play a 2-gap style against interior lineman. This would keep the linebackers clean (particularly on the goal line). If Frazier can’t be that guy, Greg Gilmore from LSU was a guy the Steelers brought in for a pre-draft visit and also plays an interior lineman style. Parker Cothran (Penn State), Kendal Vickers (Tennessee), and Casey Sayles (Ohio U) will likely be competing for a practice squad spot as a backup 3-tech or 5-tech player.
The Steelers generally keep six defensive linemen. With Heyward and Tuitt on long-term deals they certainly won’t be going anywhere and have their starting spots secured. Cam Heyward is coming off an All-Pro year while Stephon Tuitt needs to make an impact this season after an injury-plagued 2017. Tyson Alualu was signed to a team-friendly 2-year deal and will be on the team as the top backup to both Heyward and Tuitt. Javon Hargrave is technically the starting nose tackle (even though he only plays a handful of snaps per game there) but has the explosiveness to see more snaps in the nickel defense, if the Steelers want to use him there. This leaves LT Walton and Daniel McCullers, neither of whom is under contract beyond 2018. The Steelers have some familiarity with Walton, a 2015 6th round pick who has played only rotationally. McCullers was signed to a 1-year deal this offseason but will likely be forced into competition with 7th round pick Joshua Frazier. Walton’s experience gives him the inside track for the second backup defensive end spot, while it will be a toss-up between McCullers (who has been largely ineffective in his career) and the rookie Frazier for the last spot.