Next in a continuing series of NFL draft stories.
For most of the previous decade, the Steelers never had to worry about their defensive line.
In Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel and Chris Hoke, the Steelers had four players they could count on, and needed to only mix in a random free agent or draft pick for depth.
But Smith and Hoke retired after the 2011 season. Hampton followed after the 2012 season. And the 35-year-old Keisel is currently a free agent and the team has made no efforts to re-sign him.
Add in the losses of Ziggy Hood, a 2009 first-round draft pick, and Al Woods in free agency to Jacksonville and Tennessee, respectively, and it’s not hard to see why the Steelers could be in the market for a defensive linemen or two in NFL draft, which will be held May 8-10.
The Steelers have an emerging star in Cam Heyward at one defensive end position and signed free agent Cam Thomas to add to the mix along with nose tackle Steve McLendon. But there is little proven depth beyond those three.
The Steelers hold the 15th pick in the first round and at least one pick in each of the draft’s seven rounds. So it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Pittsburgh select a defensive lineman in any round.
South Carolina’s Jadaveon Clowney (6-5, 266) is considered the best defensive lineman available in this draft and could be the top pick by the Houston Texans. But he would likely be an outside linebacker for the Steelers.
Aaron Donald of Pitt will likely be the first defensive tackle selected, but at 6-1, 285 pounds, Donald, despite his obvious ability, is too light to play nose tackle in the Steelers’ defense and too short to line up at end.
He’s a better fit for a team that plays a 4-3 scheme rather than the 3-4 the Steelers employ.
“He’s as disruptive as can be,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some early-round prospects who won’t draw the interest of the Steelers.
Notre Dame’s Louis Nix (6-2, 331) is the top nose tackle prospect available in this year’s draft. The Steelers, who allowed an uncharacteristic 4.3 yards per rush attempt and 115.6 yards per game on the ground in 2013, could be interested in adding a big body in the middle of their defense.
Nix does, however, have some issues. Like many on the Fighting Irish defense, Nix played better in 2012 than he did last year.
For Nix, part of the issue was a torn meniscus in his knee that caused him to miss some time and required surgery.
Like Nix, teammate Stephon Tuitt (6-6, 304) also had injury issues in 2013, including a sports hernia and then a broken bone in his foot that has kept him from working out for teams this offseason. That has caused his draft stock to slip, and Tuitt, who was viewed as a potential first-round pick, will now likely go in the second.
Minnesota’s RaShede Hageman (6-6, 310) also has the size the Steelers like in their defensive ends, but he didn’t always dominate for the Golden Gophers. Part of that was because opponents ran away from him. Minnesota also moved him back and forth from defensive end and nose tackle.
But draft analysts are mixed on whether Hageman is a future star or a potential bust.
“(Hageman) hasn’t been able to do that on a consistent basis,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. “But the flashes are enough, the physical ability.”
Also of interest to the Steelers could be Oregon defensive end Scott Crichton (6-3, 275), a second-round prospect who played nose tackle, defensive end and outside linebacker for the Ducks. Crichton could provide immediate help as a pass rusher. He holds the Oregon record for career forced fumbles with 10, including six last season.
In later rounds, defensive ends who might interest the Steelers include Virginia’s Brett Urban (6-7, 295), Oregon’s Taylor Hart (6-6, 281) and Alabama’s Ed Stinson (6-4, 287).
At nose tackle, later round prospects who might interest the Steelers include Penn State’s DaQuan Jones (6-4, 322) in the third round, Louisiana Tech’s Justin Ellis (6-2, 334) in the third round or Ryan Carrethers (6-1, 337) of Arkansas State in the seventh round.