During the last ‘Live” segment hosted on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ website late last week, Mike Prisuta and Bob Labriola were discussing the second-year players on the roster and what to expect from them during this summer.
As they were discussing the pieces along the defensive line, Labriola said something that at first struck me as odd, even considering the early stage of the offseason that we’re in—or perhaps especially due to that.
“When you look at that position, the Steelers typically keep six or seven defensive linemen on the 53-man roster. By my count, there are five yeses: Cam Heyward, Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt, Steve McLendon, and Daniel McCullers”.
McCullers, a yes in early June?
Don’t get me wrong; I myself speculated in my first very early roster prediction that McCullers would be one of six defensive linemen to make the 53-man roster. But my prediction was written in sand, while Labriola’s sounded more like it was written in stone.
McCullers was described by head coach Mike Tomlin after the draft as a “size prospect”. In other words, they didn’t draft him because they believed that he is eminently talented and a highly productive player. They drafted him because he’s 6’7” and over 350 pounds and they believe they can mold him into a player down the road.
He is a big boy that has yet to fully understand how to play with his size. We’ve gone through multiple times already that he’s slow off the ball and needs to learn to play with leverage. He gets turned out of holes that a man his size should not.
But then I go back to my roster prediction and revisit why I have him on the roster. And then the broadcast begins to discuss nose tackle Hebron Fangupo, who managed to not record a tackle in his four appearances last season and effectively redshirted.
“He did defeat Alameda Ta’amu for the backup nose tackle job”, Labriola said, “and from what I was told, it was a fairly definitive win in training camp for Fangupo over Ta’amu. Haven’t seen anything since”.
Prisuta added, “that might not be enough this time around. There’s a lot of talk about guys that can play nose and end, particularly as it relates to Cam Thomas and Steve McLendon, or guys who can play end and then move inside and be a pass rushing force in the sub-package. I don’t know that Fangupo qualifies on either score there”.
“And again, to me, the presence of McCullers really complicates things in terms of Fangupo’s path to the 53-man roster”, Labriola concluded.
If Thomas does indeed begin the season as the starting left defensive end, then logic would suggest that he’s likely to take less reps at nose tackle. The Steelers will need another body on the roster that can play the position.
They had Al Woods last season, with Fangupo as the third option, but if Thomas is already in the starting lineup, they would either have to move him and play somebody else at defensive end should McLendon get injured, or just play another defensive end. Either way is likely to result in more nickel defense to get the nose tackle off the field anyway.
Even though McCullers is heavy, he’s far from sloppy. He has a large frame that supports his weight, and even John Mitchell said after the draft that he would look at eventually putting him at defensive end. Fangupo lacks that flexibility.
Though I wouldn’t go so far as to give McCullers a ‘yes’ in early June, it does seem to me that there is indeed a logical path for McCullers to make the roster as a rookie. If he drops a bit of weight and gets some work at defensive end, and Thomas wins a starting job at defensive end, then I think McCullers looks pretty appealing, and could serve as a sixth or seventh lineman.