While not totally unexpected and certainly on the horizon for a while now, the Pittsburgh Steelers officially took two punches to the nose on Thursday as it was reported the veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton would indeed require ACL surgery on the left knee he injured in the Wild Card game against the Denver Broncos and veteran backup nose tackle Chris Hoke made his retirement official.
Heading into the offseason, Hampton has been at the top of the list of possible players the Steelers will need to cut or restructure to get underneath the projected salary cap number of $125 million when the new league starts in early March. He is currently scheduled to count nearly $8.057 against the cap in 2012 with a base salary of $4.89 million. Now that we know he will indeed get sliced open on Friday, the question becomes how long will it take for him to rehabilitate the knee and how much is he willing to give back contract wise in order to stay. ACL repairs can take anywhere from 6-9 months to recover from, and the older and bigger a player is, it would seem 6 months might be pushing it in the case the Hampton. Keep in mind this is also the second time that Hampton as needed his left knee done and his third knee surgery of his career. In 2004 he tore his right ACL in a game against the Dallas Cowboys and was placed on injured reserve. He made it back in time for training camp in 2005 and showed up in excellent shape with his weight down. He was rewarded with a new $22.5 million, five-year contract just before the 2005 season started for his efforts. Can he do that again knowing the only thing he stands to gain is not getting released? Can he indeed be ready by the start of training camp and be a svelte 320 or so pounds like he was in 2005? it is hard to say this far out, but it certainly does not look likely.
The Hoke retirement we certainly saw coming and you can\’t begrudge a player like him for knowing when the right time was. Even had Hoke decided to try it one more season, he was at very best going to be a backup once again, and the risk of more or permanent injuries, it was not worth the try. He was an unrestricted free agent as well and there was certainly no guarantee he was even wanted back in 2012.
With the status of Hampton up in the air even more than it was heading into today, combined with retirement of his long time backup, the Steelers are in a position they haven\’t been in since the 2000-2001 offseason at the nose tackle. In April of 2000 they drafted Kendrick Clancy in the 3rd round of the NFL draft but he played behind Kimo von Oelhoffen all of his rookie season and dressed for only 9 games that year. The Steelers must not have been convinced that Clancy was the long term answer at the position as they drafted Hampton a year later in the first round. Hampton overtook Clancy by week 7 and started the final 11 games of the regular season plus the two postseason games. Clancy was gone by 2004 as Hoke took over as the backup to Hampton.
Should Hampton not be back in 2012 the Steelers are left with exclusive rights free agent Steve McLendon at nose tackle. He will be back once he signs his minimum contract, which he has to do if he wants to play in 2012, but there are concerns with his size and his ability to be an every down nose tackle in the Steelers 3-4 base defense going forward. He had his bright spots in during the 200 plus snaps he saw last season as he bounced around from nose to defensive end. He also had quite a few snaps where he was pushed around as well. The former undrafted player out of Troy is a workout warrior by all reports and he may have been instructed to try to put on a little weight during the offseason. That is just speculation. He has been with the Steelers for some time now, knows the system, and very well could be the 2012 opening day nose tackle.
While there is talk that defensive end Ziggy Hood could move inside to nose tackle, I am just not buying it right now, at least not as a long term solution. I think Hood plays too high to be over the nose and is better suited as a 5 technique defense end that is best used in 1 gap responsibilities. Perhaps the Steelers see it differently though and want to get Cameron Heyward on the field more at left defensive end as Brett Keisel deserves, and should be the week 1 right defensive end. Heyward saw very limited work as a rookie, but that could change once he has a full offseason program under his belt under the watchful eye of defensive line coach John Mitchell.
Assuming they do not think Hood can play the nose in the base, that leaves free agency and the draft as the only other alternatives. We already know how strapped the Steelers are cap wise in 2012, so you can already count on it being another offseason spent on the free agent shopping sidelines. If any free agent veteran nose tackle is signed, it will likely be on a one-year qualifying contract for the minimum and for a backup role. I just do not see that happening. That leaves the draft of course and nose tackle has been on my draft needs list for some time. Memphis junior Dontari Poe seems to be a nice fit and certainly will have the Steelers attention at the combine and at his pro day. The Steelers also could still have strong connections back to Memphis thanks to quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner. Not that others teams don\’t have connections too, but Fichtner spent a ton of time there. A few more not so elite nose tackle prospects are Josh Chapman out of Alabama and Alameda Ta\’amu out of Washington. Chapman will not be playing in the Senior Bowl because he needed ACL surgery following the National Championship game, so there is one medical red flag right there that could draft his draft stock. Ta\’amu however will be playing this weekend down in Mobile and his current draft stock is considered 3rd or 4th round. You can bet a lot of Steeler eye balls will be on him at the Senior Bowl this weekend. I will have more on these nose tackle prospects and will ramp up my move towards the draft following the Senior Bowl.
The Steelers nose, or nose tackle position that is, certainly seems bloodied right now, but we should have a little more clarity come early March when the Steelers need to get compliant with the Rule of 51. By then we should know if Hampton has taken a pay cut or gets outright released. Like I said to start this post of with, none of this that transpired today came as a surprise to the organization and they have long had a plan already in place to stop this bleeding if you will.