By: Zach Metkler, The Burgh Blog Writer
The other day, I took a look at the offensive line depth chart and gave my analysis of how the roster will likely turn out by the start of the season. Now that I have completed the offense side of the ball, I will continue my breakdown series by looking at the defensive side of the ball. First up: the Defensive Line.
Players on Roster:
-#97 Cam Heyward (6’5″, 295 lbs.; 27 years old; 6 years experience; Ohio State)
-#91 Stephon Tuitt (6’6″, 303 lbs.; 23 years old; 3 years experience; Notre Dame)
-#90 Ricardo Mathews (6’3″, 300 lbs.; 28 years old; 7 year experience; Cincinnati)
-#96 L.T. Walton (6’5″, 305 lbs.; 24 years old; 2 years experience; Central Michigan)
-#99 Caushaud Lyons (6’5″, 284 lbs.; 23 years old; 1 year experience; Tusculum)
Defensive Tackle/Nose Tackle:
-#93 Daniel McCullers (6’7″, 352 lbs.; 23 years old; 3 years experience; Tennessee)
-#79 Javon Hargrave (6’2”, 305 lbs.; 23 years old; rookie; South Carolina State)
-#69 Roy Philon (6’3”, 291 lbs.; 25 years old; 1 year experience; Louisville)
-#65 Lavon Hooks (6’3″, 312 lbs.; 24 years old; 1 year experience; Mississippi)
Undrafted Free Agents/Tryouts:
-#62 Johnny Maxey (6’5″, 283 lbs.; 22 years old; rookie; Mars Hill)
-#64 Giorgio Newberry (6’6″, 295 lbs.; 24 years old; rookie; Florida State)
Defensive Tackle/Nose Tackle:
-#61 Devaunte Sigler (6’3”, 290 lbs.; 24 years old; rookie; Jacksonville State)
Going into 2016, the Steelers defensive line will remain mostly intact, with the only real notable loss being nose tackle Steve McLendon. Veteran reserve Cam Thomas also will not return to the team this season, which will not upset many Steelers fans. On the outside, the Steelers will return defensive stalwart and team leader Cam Heyward, who will continue to be a force on the field and disrupt opposing offenses. Opposite of Heyward, Stephon Tuitt will continue to make strides as a defensive player and continue to become a force in the league. Last season, Heyward and Tuitt led the team in sacks with 7 and 6.5 respectively. The two ends are making a case for the best defensive end tandem in the league and many believe that Tuitt will develop into the better of the two players, which is scary considering Heyward was just selected as the NFL’s 88th best PLAYER in the “NFL Top 100 Players of 2016”. There is no doubt that Heyward and Tuitt will be feared defenders in the league for years to come.
Beyond Heyward and Tuitt, the Steelers signed Ricardo Mathews during the offseason and he will likely fill the same role that Thomas served while with the Steelers as a key backup. The only difference between the two is that Mathews is more of a true defensive end while Thomas was a tweener end and tackle. Along with Mathews, L.T. Walton will look to continue his development in his second year after spending his rookie year on the 53-man roster. In extremely limited snaps (29 to be exact), Walton showed a relentless motor and a powerful first step that will give the coaching staff plenty to work with as he looks to take his second-year jump. Caushad Lyons will fill out the returning defensive end depth.
At defensive tackle, the Steelers used their 3rd-round pick this year on South Carolina State lineman Javon Hargrave, who brings great versatility to the team with the ability to play inside and outside, but will compete right away with Daniel McCullers for the starting defensive/nose tackle spot. Hargrave boasts a low center of gravity and great athleticism for a big man. The Steelers practically stole him in the 3rd round and if he develops the way they think he will, he could be the last piece in the Steelers strong defensive line. He projects best as a nose tackle in the Steelers base defense, but the Steelers believe he has the potential to be able to perform well in the teams various sub-packages. McCullers will come back again as the likely starter at the beginning of the season and will bring a new physique with him as well. Drafted as a 6’7″, 360 lb. lineman, McCullers would like to get down to around 340 by the beginning of the season, which would not only help his playing ability but would also give the Steelers another physically dominant lineman to plug in along the front. Second-year defensive tackle Roy Philon spent his rookie season on the practice squad and will look to make strides in his second year to try to make the roster, although a second season on the practice squad will likely be the outcome.
Beyond these players, most of the defensive lineman will be non-factors during camp to make the roster and likely will be cut casualties. Of the undrafted players, Johnny Maxey and Devaunte Sigler might be the most exciting prospects. Both players possess great size and length with deceptive speed (both players ran around a 4.9 40-yard dash). Both prospects are extremely raw and would have to develop a lot to even have a shot to make the roster, but players have done it before (Steve McLendon).
Expected Depth Chart:
Left Defensive End:
1. Cam Heyward (Starter)
2. Ricardo Mathews
1. Daniel McCullers (Starter at the beginning of the season)
2. Javon Hargrave (Will take over starting spot midseason)
Right Defensive End:
1. Stephon Tuitt (Starter)
2. L.T. Walton
Total Players Making the Roster: 6
The starters along the defensive line will remain almost identical to last season, with both Heyward and Tuitt retaining their starting spots on the end. The battle to watch will be at defensive tackle, where McCullers and Hargrave will spend much of training camp fighting for the primary starting spot. I believe McCullers will get the nod starting out while Hargrave develops, but Hargrave has the much larger upside and much better versatility to play nose tackle in the base defense but can also contribute in sub-packages as a defensive end or a 3-technique defensive tackle. The last 2 defensive end spots will be up for grabs, but the early assumption would be that Mathews and Walton will be the players that get the nod. Since Walton spent last season on the 53-man roster and was active for 6 games, he will be ineligible for the practice squad this season, so there is added pressure for him to perform and the Steelers seem to think that he will be up for the challenge. Mathews has the veteran experience and ability to be a nice asset off the bench and will pick up right where Thomas left off (and probably perform much better). Realistically, none of the camp depth players will make the roster considering how much the Steelers have invested in defensive linemen:
- Heyward, 1st Round (2011)
- Tuitt, 2nd Round (2014)
- McCullers, 6th Round (2014)
- Walton, 6th Round (2015)
- Hargrave, 3rd Round (2016)
Unless an undrafted rookie turns heads and surprises everyone, the Steelers defensive line should be relatively easy to predict. This year, in particular, has the potential to be one of the strongest defensive lines in recent Steelers memory. And if that’s the case, look for the Steelers defense to make huge strides under second-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
Coming up next: Inside Linebackers. Stay tuned!