The Pittsburgh Steelers did right by signing nose tackle Steve McLendon to a three year contract a few weeks ago. The former undrafted free agent out of Troy finally graduated from Mitchell University and deserves a chance to start in 2013. Now that we have that out of the way, what about the depth at the nose tackle position behind McLendon?
The Steelers currently have Alameda Ta\'amu, their fourth-round draft pick from 2012, and Hebron Fangupo, who was claimed off of waivers from the Seattle Seahawks late last December, currently on the roster. Neither, however, have taken a regular season snap with the Steelers since they both arrived in Pittsburgh.
Training camp is a time when younger players get the most of their training and the most of their snaps. Once the season starts, however, those snaps dimish quickly as the practices are mostly centered around the team preparing their starters for the week ahead. Thanks to Ta\'amu\'s off the field problems last year, and Fangupo\'s late arrival to the team, how much quality time do you suppose that both received with defensive line coach John Mitchell? I\'m willing to bet that whatever the amount of time was, it wasn\'t nearly enough.
McLendon, who is regarded as a player with a pretty high football IQ with a strong work ethic, still took four seasons to develop. Granted, he was stuck behind starter Casey Hampton and backup Chris Hoke for several years, but it wasn\'t until last season until the team felt comfortable enough with him to be the primary backup.
Fangupo, prior to him being brought in via waivers, saw all of seven snaps on the defensive side of the ball with the Seahawks last season. Seven. That\'s only seven more than Ta\'amu played last year if you are scoring at home. It would be absolutely foolish to expect either of the two to be ready to backup to McLendon in 2013 based on everything that has transpired with each up until this point.
Sure, Hampton was able to start by late October of his rookie season, but trust me when I say that neither Ta\'amu nor Fangupo are close to being the player that Hampton was when he was a rookie. So if indeed that is the case, the Steelers will likely carry either Ta\'amu or Fangupo on the 53 man roster as a third nose tackle, but they will still need a backup to McLendon.
By now you certainly know where I am going with all of this. Like or not, Hampton is the best available free agent nose tackle on the market right now and it just so happens that the Steelers have yet to give out jersey No. 98.
While Hampton certainly has shown signs of slowing down, I believe that he has one more season left in him and that he would be a perfect backup in 2013 to McLendon. God forbid should McLendon go down with an injury, at least the Steelers would have an experienced player in Hampton to take his place, as opposed to inexperienced players such as Ta\'amu or Fangupo.
Hampton, by the time June rolls around and the Steelers free up another $5.5 million in salary cap space, ought to come cheap. Also, having an experienced player such as Hampton back in the fold would afford Mitchell even more time to work with both Ta\'amu and Fangupo during training camp as both McLendon and Hampton already know the nose tackle position, and the defensive end positions for that matter, by now.
Steelers safety Ryan Clark likely said it best on Monday when he was a guest on the ESPN show NFL Live when asked who he thought was the best free agent still available on the market right now.
"I\'m going to be a homer here, but Casey Hampton," said Clark. "If we\'re talking about guys who can come in situationally, and you talk about first and second down being a nose tackle, always doing his job, always taking two to keep those middle linebackers free, that\'s what Casey does. And also, he will be more of a bargain than the type of money that Dwight Freeney is asking for."
Homerish? Absolutely, but Clark\'s description of Hampton being a great situational free agent is right on the mark and the Steelers would be smart to bring him back for one more year because of that.