When the Steelers signed defensive lineman Steve McLendon to a three-year, $7.25-million contract extension last year, it was with the thought he would be their starting nose tackle for at least the length of that deal.
Friday, they added another player with starting experience at nose tackle, signing San Diego’s Cam Thomas, a 6-4, 330-pound nose tackle, to a two-year deal worth $4 million, including a $1 million signing bonus. He will earn $1 million this season and count $1.5 million against the team’s salary cap.
The Steelers lost defensive ends Al Woods to Tennessee and Ziggy Hood to Jacksonville in the opening days of free agency, leaving them painfully thin on their defensive line.
They entered free agency with three of their top five linemen – Woods, Hood and Brett Keisel – as unrestricted free agents.
But with Thomas on board, Pittsburgh could be looking at a line with Thomas, McLendon and emerging star Cameron Heyward at defensive end. Thomas also can play defensive end though the majority of his playing time has come at nose tackle.
The Steelers also have Hebron Fangupo, Brian Arnfelt, and Nick Williams under contract, though none of that trio has significant NFL experience.
McLendon stepped into the nose tackle position on a full-time basis in 2013 after five-time Pro Bowl player Casey Hampton was not retained.
The Steelers hope Thomas, whose nickname is “Baby Zilla,” can help improve a run defense that dipped to 21st in the NFL, allowing 115.6 yards per game, 25 yards worse than in 2012.
A fifth-round pick by San Diego in 2010 out of North Carolina, Thomas, who made 10 starts at nose tackle for San Diego in 2013 before being benched late in the season, is a clogger in the middle. He made 23 tackles, batted down two passes and intercepted another for the Chargers last season, appearing in all 16 games.
Thomas, 27, also has flashed some pass rush ability. In 2011, he recorded four sacks.
Thomas was one of two defensive linemen hosted by the Steelers Friday. The team also met with Buffalo defensive end Alex Carrington.
Meanwhile, the market for Steelers free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders continues to be hot. Sanders was in Kansas City Friday after meeting with officials from Jacksonville and Tampa Bay earlier in the week. He is scheduled to visit with San Francisco today.