NFL Draft

A Statistical Look At Why The Steelers Should Consider A First Round Defensive Lineman

There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether or not the Pittsburgh Steelers should spend their first round draft pick on defensive lineman this year as it relates to the number of snaps that player might wind up playing and I’m proud to say that Alex Kozora and I are mainly responsible for that. In this post, I will attempt to show why the Steelers should indeed go the route of defensive lineman in the first round and more specifically, why such a player should also be able to nose tackle in the team’s base 3-4 defense.

For starters, let’s start with the fact that Steve McLendon and Cam Thomas are both no longer in Pittsburgh. Their exits leave Daniel McCullers as the lone nose tackle who would figure to start at nose tackle in 2016 in the team’s base 3-4 defense. Now, I don’t know how comfortable you are with that, but I’ll tell you that I’m certainly worried about that.

For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that McCullers can handle that base 3-4 role in 2016 just as McLendon did. Moving forward, one would hope that McCullers would also be able to give the Steelers some level snaps in 2016 as a defensive tackle in the team’s sub packages. There is, however, no real proof that McCullers can function in such role effectively based on what we saw last year, which I must remind you was his second year in the league. To back that up, McCullers was only allowed to play 24 non-penalty snaps last season in the Steelers sub packages and as I pointed out in a previous post, most of those snaps were meaningless.

Next, let’s take a look at the workload that Steelers defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt both had last season. For starters, the two combined to play 83.3% of all possible defensive snaps during the 2015 regular season and that includes all penalty plays. To put that combined playing time into perspective, I have compiled the top two snap-getters of every team’s defensive linemen from last season and calculated the total percentages. You can see these listed in the two tables below.

As you can see, the duo of Heyward and Tuitt finished tied for 5th in the league with the New York Jets when it comes to these total snaps of team’s top two defensive linemen snap-getters. Now, keep in mind that Tuitt missed two-plus games with a knee injury last season and thus had he played in every game, the Steelers would have likely led the league in this statistical category.

Additionally, as far as the compiled data below goes, I want you to note how many of these duos include at least one defensive end that plays in a more traditional front. In other words, most of those players are essentially edge rushers much in the same way that the Steelers use their outside linebackers. This was definitely the case with Buffalo Bills top two defensive linemen, Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes.

The preface of all of this data is to show that the Steelers need to lighten the load some in 2016 on Heyward and Tuitt and I’m willing to bet the team agrees with that assessment.

Now, when it comes to the Steelers defensive linemen last season as it relates to snaps played in their sub packages that included only two defensive linemen being on the field in those situations, Heyward played 659 of a possible 756 non-penalty snaps that match the aforementioned criteria. Tuitt, on the other hand, played 590 of a possible 756 snaps and that’s even with him missing two-plus games.

The two were on the field together for a total of 540 of a possible 756 snaps last season which equates to 71.4%. Assuming both are able to hit that same total percentage again in 2016, that leaves 28.6% of all sub package snaps that the Steelers will need to have other defensive linemen play. Remember, those 756 total sub package snaps last season do not include plays that were wiped out by penalties. So in essence, the Steelers will need to find players who can absorb roughly 30% of all sub package snaps played in 2016.

Who can play those snaps now that McLendon and Thomas are now both gone? McCullers? New free agent defensive end Ricardo Mathews? Last year’s sixth-round draft pick L.T. Walton? 2015 practice squader Caushaud Lyons? If you are comfortable with all four of those players helping out in 2016 when it comes to playing those remaining snaps, then, no, the Steelers probably shouldn’t invest a first-round draft pick in a defensive lineman this year.

If, however, you aren’t comfortable with those players, then the Steelers should seriously consider spending a first-round draft pick on a defensive lineman this year who can not only help absorb a good portion of those snaps, but also start at nose tackle in the team’s base 3-4 defense as well.

Personally, I’m not comfortable with McCullers, Mathews, Walton and Lyons playing a ton of sub package snaps in 2016. Why should I be?

Now, an argument can be made that this year’s draft class is deep when it comes to defensive linemen and thus that the Steelers can wait a few rounds before addressing the position. However, when it comes to defensive linemen in this year’s class that can not only play as a 3-4 nose tackle in addition to being able to play as a pass rusher in sub packages, that list of players figures to get real thin very quickly after the first round is completed.

Defensive linemen snaps for 2015 season

PLAYER POS TEAM GP SNAPS TM SNAPS %
J.J. Watt DE HOU 16 1,001 1,041 96.20%
Jerry Hughes DE BUF 16 1,003 1,084 92.50%
Cameron Jordan DE NO 16 980 1,063 92.20%
Muhammad Wilkerson DE NYJ 16 941 1,052 89.50%
Cameron Heyward DE PIT 16 972 1,105 88.00%
Khalil Mack DE OAK 16 999 1,146 87.20%
Connor Barwin DE PHI 16 1,053 1,215 86.70%
Ndamukong Suh DT MIA 16 985 1,154 85.40%
Brian Robison DE MIN 16 901 1,076 83.70%
Olivier Vernon DE MIA 16 943 1,154 81.70%
Michael Bennett DE SEA 16 810 995 81.40%
Rob Ninkovich DE NE 16 888 1,092 81.30%
Mario Williams DE BUF 15 880 1,084 81.20%
Carlos Dunlap DE CIN 16 878 1,083 81.10%
Fletcher Cox DT PHI 16 982 1,215 80.80%
Everson Griffen DE MIN 15 866 1,076 80.50%
Aaron Donald DT STL 16 911 1,154 78.90%
Stephon Tuitt DE PIT 14 870 1,105 78.70%
Cliff Avril DE SEA 16 780 995 78.40%
Calais Campbell DE ARI 16 811 1,038 78.10%
Michael Johnson DE CIN 16 845 1,083 78.00%
Jurrell Casey DT TEN 16 825 1,058 78.00%
Leonard Williams DE NYJ 16 811 1,052 77.10%
Jared Odrick DT JAX 16 875 1,161 75.40%
Malik Jackson DT DEN 16 824 1,095 75.30%
Jared Crick DE HOU 16 779 1,041 74.80%
Kendall Langford DE IND 16 847 1,134 74.70%
Gerald McCoy DT TB 15 802 1,098 73.00%
Dontari Poe DT KC 15 757 1,086 69.70%
Jaye Howard DT KC 16 750 1,086 69.10%
Kawann Short DT CAR 16 757 1,097 69.00%
Brandon Williams DT BAL 16 725 1,063 68.20%
Mike Daniels DT GB 16 707 1,050 67.30%
Tyrone Crawford DT DAL 16 703 1,056 66.60%
Demarcus Lawrence DE DAL 16 700 1,056 66.30%
Kendall Reyes DE SD 16 656 1,001 65.50%
DaQuan Jones DE TEN 16 672 1,058 63.50%
Ezekiel Ansah DE DET 16 660 1,049 62.90%
Jarvis Jenkins DE CHI 15 634 1,030 61.60%
William Gholston DE TB 16 674 1,098 61.40%
Michael Brockers DT STL 16 691 1,154 59.90%
Tyson Alualu DE JAX 16 688 1,161 59.30%
Denico Autry DE OAK 14 680 1,146 59.30%
Derek Wolfe DE DEN 12 648 1,095 59.20%
Kony Ealy DE CAR 16 646 1,097 58.90%
Chris Baker NT WAS 16 618 1,058 58.40%
Ian Williams NT SF 16 661 1,141 57.90%
David Parry DT IND 16 654 1,134 57.70%
Haloti Ngata DT DET 14 599 1,049 57.10%
Quinton Dial DT SF 15 644 1,141 56.40%
Bobby Richardson DE NO 15 585 1,063 55.00%
Jonathan Babineaux DT ATL 16 548 1,049 52.20%
Jason Hatcher DE WAS 15 541 1,058 51.10%
Jabaal Sheard DE NE 13 557 1,092 51.00%
Ricardo Mathews DE SD 16 510 1,001 51.00%
Desmond Bryant DE CLE 14 530 1,045 50.70%
Timmy Jernigan DT BAL 15 533 1,063 50.10%
Eddie Goldman NT CHI 15 515 1,030 50.00%
Kerry Wynn DE NYG 15 579 1,157 50.00%
Adrian Clayborn DE ATL 16 522 1,049 49.80%
Robert Ayers Jr. DE NYG 12 570 1,157 49.30%
Frostee Rucker DT ARI 13 507 1,038 48.80%
Danny Shelton NT CLE 16 506 1,045 48.40%
Malcom Brown DT NE 16 508 1,092 46.50%
B.J. Raji DT GB 15 444 1,050 42.30%
TEAM SNAPS TOT SNAPS %
BUF 1,883 2,168 86.9%
HOU 1,780 2,082 85.5%
PHI 2,035 2,430 83.7%
MIA 1928 2,308 83.5%
NYJ 1752 2,104 83.3%
PIT 1842 2,210 83.3%
MIN 1767 2,152 82.1%
SEA 1590 1990 79.9%
CIN 1723 2,166 79.5%
NO 1565 2,126 73.6%
OAK 1679 2,292 73.3%
TEN 1497 2,116 70.7%
KC 1507 2,172 69.4%
STL 1602 2,308 69.4%
JAX 1563 2,322 67.3%
DEN 1472 2,190 67.2%
TB 1476 2,196 67.2%
DAL 1403 2,112 66.4%
IND 1501 2,268 66.2%
CAR 1403 2,194 63.9%
ARI 1318 2,076 63.5%
DET 1259 2,098 60.0%
BAL 1258 2,126 59.2%
SD 1166 2,002 58.2%
SF 1305 2,282 57.2%
CHI 1149 2,060 55.8%
GB 1151 2,100 54.8%
WAS 1159 2,116 54.8%
ATL 1070 2,098 51.0%
NYG 1149 2,314 49.7%
CLE 1036 2,090 49.6%
NE 1065 2,184 48.8%
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