By Cian Fahey
There is a lot of speculation that the Pittsburgh Steelers will pick up a nose tackle for the future in an early round of the upcoming draft. However, the Steelers have lost a veteran contributor at the position since last season and may be looking to add experience and depth instead, or as alongside, a young prospect.
Chris Hoke was a long-standing fixture in the Steelers defense despite only starting 18 games throughout his career. Hoke was a permanent fixture in the rotation when healthy and an outstanding backup for Casey Hampton who was capable of coming in and starting or playing extensively at any time.
Most importantly for the Steelers, Hoke was a proven commodity at a vital position for the defense as a whole.
With question marks over Hampton\’s health, the Steelers\’ depth at the nose tackle position will be crucial early on next year. They should have the attitude that there is no such thing as too many nose tackles entering camp this year.
Even if the Steelers draft a nose tackle in the first or second round, they still would not have a proven commodity to play in Hampton\’s place or to spell him in a greater role. Steve McLendon showed a lot last season starting one game and contributing as part of the rotation.
McLendon is not exactly like Hampton or Hoke as he has greater pass rushing abilities and doesn\’t represent the same presence inside because of his lack of girth. McLendon is entering his third season but essentially didn\’t play as a rookie. He is 26 years of age and cannot be considered proven as a starter.
It\’s conceivable that the Steelers carry four nose tackles on the roster entering next season. With Arnaz Battle, and multiple younger linebackers and cornerbacks contributing on special teams last year, with Emmanuel Sanders expected to return kicks, the Steelers should have a roster space or two to spare for the position.
That would leave the team with Hampton, McLendon, some form of prospect between a late round development prospect or a high pick in the draft, and space for a veteran to replace Hoke.
In that instance, the Steelers would be searching for a nose tackle who shares the skill-set of Hampton. Fortunately, a proven nose tackle is still available on the free agent market.
Despite struggling last year in a 4-3 scheme with the New Orleans Saints, Aubrayo Franklin had a fine year previously for the San Francisco 49ers in their 3-4 base defense. Some may see it as a knock on Franklin that the 49ers run defense excelled without him last year, but a huge reason for that was the emergence of Navorro Bowman over Takeo Spikes.
Franklin is only 31 years of age despite his drop off in play last year. He has played nine seasons for the Saints, 49ers and Baltimore Ravens before them. He is a proven 3-4 run stuffing nose tackle who plays the exact same role as Hampton.
As a veteran, Franklin could also guide the incoming youngster(s) as well as McLendon allowing Hampton to fully focus on his own rehab and getting back to his best. At this stage in free agency, with the market for defensive linemen basically dead, Franklin won\’t be an expensive avenue to explore. He likely wouldn\’t be signed, at least not by the Steelers, until after the draft.
Hoke was a vital replacement for Hampton when he last tore his ACL in 2004. Hoke started 10 games and tallied 24 tackles. That kind of production is a lot to ask for from McLendon and whatever young prospect the team brings in.
Franklin may not be Hope or Hampton, but he could be another vital role player who the Steelers “splash out” on in free agency.
You can follow Cian on Twitter at @cianaf