Two days ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost perhaps their most important player that they allowed to hit free agency, veteran nose tackle Steve McLendon, who at age 30 had never had the opportunity to experience unrestricted free agency before.
The former undrafted free agent signed a three-year contract worth up to $12 million with the Jets to fill the sudden hole that they had at nose tackle when their own starter there changed locker rooms to sign with the Giants and play in their four-man front.
And that is, after all, kind of what the Steelers are looking for now in their replacement of McLendon, as, depending on how you look at it, the team now uses either a 2-4-5 or a 4-2-5 as their base package, with four players up against the line. They would like whoever plays their traditional 3-4 nose tackle to be able to log effective snaps in their nickel base defense.
But what they have, right now, is Daniel McCullers, entering his third season after being a sixth-round draft pick in 2013. The 6’7”, 350-plus-pound nose tackle did not see the influx of snaps that many had anticipated, logging just 105 snaps for the season, though a four-game injury stint with an ankle issue played a role in that.
What is notable, however, is that his playing time declined as the season progressed and, frankly, the games got more important as the Steelers were fighting for their playoff lives. While he only played 13 snaps against the Patriots in the opener, he logged 22 against a run-heavy 49ers team the following week, during which he suffered his injury.
He missed the next four weeks, as mentioned, and when he returned, Stephon Tuitt was out for two games with an injury of his own. He saw eight snaps in his first game back, but a season-high 25 in that seconds game as the Steelers looked to make up that snap deficit with Tuitt out.
After that? He only played double-digits snaps once more over the duration of the rest of the season, logging 10 snaps against the Bengals in Week 14. Including the playoffs, he played just 12 snaps over the course of the Steelers’ final five games, during which they rode their starting defensive ends hard, and even McLendon logged an average of about 25 percent of the team’s defensive snaps over that span.
That is the sort of production that they could be hoping to get out of McCullers this year—about 25 to 30 percent of the team’s snaps, primarily as a run downs 3-4 nose tackle—which is precisely why they were not willing to bid too high on McLendon and let him test out the market.
The question now is whether or not they can get that out of the big man. According to our charting, McCullers was on the field for 41 run snaps, primarily as a 3-4 nose tackle, and the defense allowed an average of 2.24 yards per carry on those plays, so take that for whatever it’s worth to you, keeping in mind that a lot of that is short-yardage work.