“Rebuilding.” It is a term that both Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin passionately rejected when the Steelers were enduring twin 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013.
- Semantics aside, the Steelers were rebuilding following Super Bowl XVL, particularly on defense.
Kevin Colbert adopted a front-to-back approach to rebuilding and while each position area on the defensive depth charts has seen its ups and downs, Colbert has clearly enjoyed the most success with the defensive line. Is that success sufficient to sustain the Steelers quest for Lombardi Number 7, or should the Steelers again look to defensive line heading into 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s take a look.
Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter
Consume draft day comments from team executives with a grain of salt. No head coach or general manager is going blurt out:
Yeah, believe it or not all 8 of the guys we thought would be on the board and anted to pick were gone and, to be frank, the trade offers we got were shitty. So we had no other choice but to take Joe Smith. But hey, we’re glad to have him on the team, and are excited to welcome him to city. No, really….
However, when the Steelers drafted Cam Heyward 1st round in the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert proclaimed it a “historic day” for the franchise. Kevin Colbert was right. Cameron Heyward was the first player to join the Steelers following Super Bowl XLV, and it is hard to conceive of a better player to begin your rebuild project with.
Cam Heyward has been a difference maker for the Steelers since becoming a starter in mid-2013, but his efforts have largely been ignored outside of Pittsburgh. In 2017 Cam Heyward made the 1st team AP All Pro team, after recording a record 12.5 sacks.
- Next to Heyward, the Steelers have Stephon Tuitt, who has had to deal with nagging injuries and might not have matched Heyward’s numbers, but is clearly an elite defensive end.
Playing between these two giants, is Javon Hargrave, the Steelers 3rd round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft. Javon Hargrave had a phenomenal rookie year in 2016, and started 2017 off strong, only to be dogged by back injuries during the later portion of the season.
Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups
Rotation fueled much of the success of former Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell’s system. Whether he was starting Kevin Henry, Joel Steed and Ray Seals, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel or the Steelers current starting trio, Mitchell believed in mixing in a fresh body throughout the game.
- During 2014, 2015 and even 2016 the Steelers lacked the personnel to effectively.
Last spring the Steelers signed Tyson Alualu who provided that vital fourth man the makes the Steelers defensive line rotation work. 2017 marked a big year for L.T. Walton, who saw his snap count almost double, and he recorded his first two sacks in wins against Tennessee and Green Bay. Newly resigned Daniel McCullers will be back, as apparently Karl Dunbar would like to extend the young man yet another chance.
Steelers 2018 Defensive Line Draft Needs
The Steelers defensive line is a unit influx. Since Keith Butler took the reigns, the Steelers have played in their base, 3-4 defense less frequently including alignments that employ four down lineman. Recently, as pointed out by a questioner on Bob Labriola’s Asked and Answered, the Steelers now list Cameron Heyward as a defensive tackle.
- Karl Dunbar’s arrival also offers another sign that further changes may be in the air.
However, health as opposed to any of those changes are the important drivers of the Steelers 2018 defensive line draft needs.
Javon Hargrave struggled with injuries during the later half of 2017 and didn’t appear to play much during the playoff loss to the Jaguars. L.T. Walton played in his place, and he too had elbow surgery. Stephon Tuitt missed four games due to injury and was also on the injury list going into the playoffs.
- Do those injuries offer a warning sign for 2018? Only the Steelers medical staff knows.
Absent any insight, its best to assume that this medical wild card won’t come into play and, while the Steelers could use someone to push Daniel McCullers, their depth at defensive line remains solid, and therefore the Steelers 2018 defensive line draft needs should be considered Moderate-Low.