When you look back just to the start of last season and project the starting lineup that the Pittsburgh Steelers can be expected to field when they resume play in September, you’ll see that they’ve undergone quite a bit of change. Certainly more than usual.
With two exceptions—Heath Miller and Le’Veon Bell—the changes to the opening day lineup will be made either due to free agency losses or gains or simply superior play. The two aforementioned players, of course, projected as starters but missed the early portions of last season due to injury.
This series will take a look primarily at the starting positions that will be filled by new faces, replacing the old faces that are now gone—Emmanuel Sanders, Ziggy Hood, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, and Ryan Clark.
Position: Left Defensive End
2013 Opening Day Starter: Ziggy Hood
Projected 2014 Starter: TBD [Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt, Brian Arnfelt]
The Steelers are in the midst of a two-year complete overhaul of their defensive front, which began with the decision to move on from Casey Hampton after the 2012 season in favor of Steve McLendon.
Cameron Heyward usurped Ziggy Hood after the first month of last season at left defensive end, but as I suspected yesterday, he is practicing on the right side—Brett Keisel’s old spot.
In the spot once manned by Aaron Smith to begin OTAs was free agent signing Cam Thomas, who has by far the most playing experience of all potential candidates. He most recently started most of last season, albeit at nose tackle, for the Chargers.
Thomas will likely spend at least the majority of the offseason taking reps with the first team, and perhaps could even begin the season as the starter at left defensive end. But that’s far from a given with two competitors at his heels.
Brian Arnfelt spent most of last season as a rookie undrafted free agent practicing as the second-team left defensive end, and made a strong impression on the coaches. He played well during the season and eventually earned a mid-season call-up from the practice squad.
He now has some experience in the system, and could potentially wrest control of a starting job from Thomas while the team waits on the rookie to develop.
That rookie, Stephon Tuitt, is a 20-year-old drafted as a true junior who played last season with a sports hernia. The Steelers would certainly like him to emerge as a starter sooner rather than later, but wouldn’t hesitate to play Thomas or Arnfelt ahead of him, if they feel he’s not ready.
After all, it took part of three seasons before Heyward finally cracked the starting lineup as a former first-round pick. One thing that is probably safe to assume is that if Tuitt does start this season—barring injury—he will do so having done it based purely on merit.