It wasn’t all that long ago that the Steelers relied on a defensive line rotation that included Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel and Chris Hoke. The group was rock steady and anchored a defense that was consistently among the league’s best.
However, Smith and Hoke retired following the 2011 season. The 35-year-old Hampton, meanwhile, is a free agent, and it doesn’t appear that the Steelers have the salary cap room or desire to re-sign him.
Only Keisel remains from the group that led Pittsburgh’s defense over the past decade, though the Steelers have added a pair of first-round draft picks, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward, in recent years in an attempt to shore up their front seven.
The Steelers also expect fourth-year nose tackle Steve McLendon to continue to develop, while young nose tackles Alameda Ta’amu and Hebron Fanguopo and defensive end Al Woods provide depth.
Pittsburgh will likely add to that group next week when the NFL draft is held April 25-27. The Steelers have eight overall selections, including the 17th pick in the first round.
The defensive linemen in this year’s draft are some of the most intriguing players.
Florida’s Shariff Floyd (6-3, 297) is an athletic, disruptive defensive tackle who could be the first player selected in the draft, and BYU’s Zigg Ansah (6-5, 271) is a native of Ghana who is being projected in the top part of the first round because of his athleticism.
Floyd is a junior who had 13 1/2 tackles for losses and 6 1/2 sacks last season for the Gators and would be a good fit for a team looking for an interior pass rusher.
Ansah originally went to BYU as a track athlete but took up football after his freshman year. He had only 10 career tackles entering last season, but had a breakout year with 62 tackles, including 13 for losses, and 4 1/2 sacks.
Considered a raw prospect, Ansah is one of the wildcards in this draft.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the NFL who doesn’t think he’s going to be a good player,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “The question is when? Is it this year, next year or three years from now?
“He’s so gifted. Some teams are looking at him as a 3-4 outside linebacker, while others are saying, with that frame, he could be 290 (pounds) and be a 3-4 defensive end.”
Utah’s Star Lotulelei will probably be the next defensive lineman taken, and he could interest the Steelers as a nose tackle. If Lotulelei falls to No. 17, it could be because of a heart condition that forced him out of the NFL combine.
Tests on Lotulelei’s heart have since checked out OK, and the 6-3, 311-pounder is a run-stuffer who demands double teams.
German-born defensive end Bjoern Werner of Florida State, UCLA’s Datone Jones, North Carolina’s Sylvester Moore and Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson also are expected to be first-round picks.
In later rounds, defensive ends who fit the Steelers’ scheme include Mallicah Goodman of Clemson, Michigan State’s William Gholston and Utah’s Joe Kruger.
If the Steelers wait until later rounds to add a nose tackle they could look at Montori Hughes of Tennessee-Martin – though he was kicked off the team at Tennessee – Georgia’s Kwame Geathers or Brandon Williams of Missouri Southern.