By Matthew Marczi
Ask any Pittsburgh Steelers fan now and he’ll tell you that the offseason began way too early for their team, which even according to team president Art Rooney II should have been in the playoffs.
If you asked that same fan at the Bye Week for their mock draft, however, they might have already had written up as the Steelers faced a seemingly unthinkable winless September to start the year.
There’s always somebody ready to start talking about the offseason, no matter how early on it is in the process. And in the middle of January, it’s still quite early to start talking about the draft—not that there’s nothing wrong with that. Here’s a pre-free agency, pre-salary cap purging look at the Steelers’ draft needs, position by position.
It’s hard to gauge where the Steelers as an organization feel they are with respect to securing the nose tackle position. They do currently have three players to play the position—assuming Al Woods is re-signed—though two of the three are not natural nose tackles.
The third, Hebron Fangupo, is heading into his third season, has hardly any actual experience, and is already approaching 30 years old. Meanwhile, opinions on the performance of Steve McLendon seem to differ a fair bit.
Steve McLendon: McLendon was a necessary re-signing after the team parted with longtime nose tackle Casey Hampton after more than a decade. Though McLendon doesn’t have the prototypical size of a nose tackle, the Steelers have made out with similar body types before, most recently with Chris Hoke, who started most of the 2004 season due to an injury to Hampton.
While he started out on a strong note, one area of his game that did not develop the way many anticipated was his pass rush. Nose tackles are not generally counted on for their pass rush, but McLendon’s smaller size and flexibility provided him with an advantage that he was able to use in more limited roles in the past.
On the other hand, he played much better against the run than many seem willing to give him credit for, making plays on his own and shooting gaps. The main sticking point is his ability to not only navigate, but command double teams. This is an area that could be upgraded, but it was something the organization understood when opting for a smaller player at the position, which offers other advantages.
Hebron Fangupo: Fangupo ultimately won a training camp battle against Alameda Ta’amu to serve as the third-string developmental nose tackle. Ta’amu ended up in Arizona, playing over 200 snaps and grading quite well against the run according to Pro Football Focus. Fangupo played 13 snaps and didn’t look any more polished.
What’s more, he’ll be 29 when his third season starts. This, like Keenan Lewis and Jason Worilds vs Sean Lee, will probably be debated by Steelers fans for years to come, especially if Ta’amu continues to build his role and eventually takes over the nose tackle position. What kind of long-term potential is there in a somewhat raw 29-year-old?
Draft Strategy: Although I don’t tend to lean that way, it’s possible that the Steelers could address the nose tackle position as early as the first round. As they did with Hampton many moons ago, this could involve a trade-down scenario.
Otherwise, there are several mid-round prospects that could offer a better long-term candidate than Fangupo, but in the immediate future, it is essential to re-sign Woods, who proved last season that he’s capable of backing up all three positions along the defensive line.
Previous Articles In This Series
Steelers Early Offseason Positional Draft Needs – Quarterback
Steelers Early Offseason Positional Draft Needs – Running Back
Steelers Early Offseason Positional Draft Needs – Wide Receiver
Steelers Early Offseason Positional Draft Needs – Tight End
Steelers Early Offseason Positional Draft Needs – Interior OL
Steelers Early Offseason Positional Draft Needs – Offensive Tackle
Steelers Early Offseason Positional Draft Needs – Defensive End