One of the main themes during the course of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ pre-draft press conference yesterday was the defensive line position, and whether or not the team is set at defensive end after this offseason’s departures.
Head coach Mike Tomlin conceded the fact that “we’ve lost more than we’ve added”, with the notable losses of Ziggy Hood and Al Woods counterbalanced only by the acquisition of Cam Thomas. Brett Keisel remains a free agent.
After a loaded question about what the team’s plans are along the defensive line, Tomlin was coerced into saying “obviously we’re not done in that area”.
Given the fact that they’ve heavily explored the top of the defensive end market in the upcoming draft—and the lack of a clear starter at one of the two defensive end spots—that’s obviously far from a smoke screen.
But at the same time it certainly seemed as though Tomlin was racing to mention that there are other defensive ends on the team other than Cameron Heyward, defensive ends that Tomlin believes can make positive contributions.
Last season, the Steelers picked up Nick Williams in the seventh round, a physical specimen of a man, but raw for the position. After the draft, they added Brian Arnfelt as an undrafted free agent.
Somewhat the opposite of Williams, Arnfelt came in fairly polished, knowing what he needs to do, and he played well during the preseason, later being promoted to the roster. Williams spent the year on injured reserve.
Here is Tomlin’s full quote:
I think it’s just that, obviously we’re not done in that area. But I would also mention that we’ve got some young people here that are working, and we don’t expect them to be the same as they have been. We expect improvement in some of the young people working here, like Arnfelt and Nick Williams. But, obviously, it’s incomplete. We’ve lost more than we’ve added, and hopefully this week and beyond we’ll rectify that.
While acknowledging that their work at the position is incomplete (and how could it be, with the draft still coming?), he made sure to emphasize that there are internal candidates that could contribute. Heyward also spoke about these young defensive ends last week, about whether or not he expects them to produce this season:
I think so. Nick, coming off an injury, we still have to see where he is. But Brian has put in a lot of work this offseason. He’s been here almost every day with me working out. He’s definitely come a long way. I thought him being around, not even playing that much but being around guys like Brett Keisel and Ziggy, he got to learn a lot.
Every day through practice you saw Brian get better. You could see at the end of practices towards the end of the year, he was really starting to strive and make a lot of progress. Going against our offense and our offensive line, it’s only going to make you better.
While you can’t bet the bank on a pair of inexperienced defensive ends with no pedigree, it wouldn’t behoove the Steelers to discount their potential by any means. They as much as anybody have had success along the defensive line with such late-round or undrafted talents as Keisel, Chris Hoke, and Steve McLendon, just in recent vintage.
And there would be more if the defensive line hadn’t experienced such longevity during the 00s, with Keisel and Hoke being instrumental in that. It won’t prevent them from drafting a defensive end, but the Steelers might not be so hard off at the position as many think.