This is Part 4 of our Steelers position review series. If you haven’t read Part 1 – 3, please click the links below.
In this installment of our position-by-position review, we take a look at the defensive line.
For the most part, our review of the defensive line is going to sound like deja vu. The Steelers had the oldest defensive line in the NFL last season. We’ve been talking about the Steelers’ aging defensive line for years now. And yet the team has seemed to be content to stand pat. However, in 2010 fate intervened and forced them to make a change.
Aaron Smith has manned the left defensive end position for the Steelers since 2000 when he became a starter. He’s been as good at that position as anyone in the league. In fact, we’ve often said that Smith has been among the most under-rated players in the NFL. Unfortunately, even the best players age, and Aaron Smith is no exception.
When he’s healthy, Smith is still a great player. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been healthy very often lately. Over the past two seasons, Aaron Smith has played in a total of 11 games (5 in 2009, 6 in 2010). Both seasons were cut short by injuries. In each case, the Steelers held a roster position for him for the entire season in the hopes that he’d make a comeback. And in each case, he was unable to do so.
Smith will be 35 this season, and is scheduled to make $4.5 million. That’s a lot of money to pay a player who hasn’t even played half of the games during each of the past 2 years. Moreover, based on Ziggy Hood’s play last year, Aaron Smith would likely be a backup. If the Steelers can’t work out a new deal with Smith, at a significantly lower price, his days with the Steelers are likely over.
Ziggy Hood is the reason why Smith is expendable. The former first round draft pick stepped in when Smith went down, and the Steelers didn’t miss a beat. In fact, the team was even more effective against the run. And at only 24 years old, I expect to see Hood manning the position for quite some time.
In the middle of the line, we have Casey Hampton. Hampton is one of my favorite players on the Steelers. For a guy who looks big and intimidating, he’s as nice as they come. But like Aaron Smith, age is catching up to Hampton. Hampton will be 34 years old next season.
Hampton is not nearly as dominant as he once was. His days as a Pro Bowl player are behind him, and his production has dropped considerably. Hampton recorded only 10 tackles this season. That’s his lowest total since 2004 when he was injured and played in only 6 games. Moreover, he had his the lowest tackles/game average of his entire career. He averaged fewer tackle per game than he did as a rookie.
Hampton will be back next season, but it’s time for the Steelers to draft his replacement. They can’t afford to go another season without a young player developing behind Hampton.
Hampton’s current backup is Chris Hoke. Hoke has been a solid backup for years now. He’s a good locker room guy, and the team hardly misses a beat when he enters the game. The problem is that Hoke is even older than Hampton. Hoke will be 35 during the upcoming season. It makes no sense to have a 34 year old starter and a 35 year old backup.
Hoke is also an unrestricted free agent. So he will have the freedom to sign with any team that he desires. Even if he is willing to take a significant pay cut, it may be hard for the Steelers to justify bringing him back.
On the right side of the line, we have the man with the beard, Brett Keisel. Keisel has really come on as a player over the last 2 years. He’s probably surpassed Aaron Smith as the Steelers’ most dominant defensive lineman.
Unfortunately, Keisel is also a member of the 30+ club. Keisel will be 33 this upcoming season. So like Smith, Hampton, and Hoke, his playing days are numbered.
Nick Eason is Keisel’s backup. I’d love to say that Eason is 24 years old. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be true. Eason will be 31 when the 2011 season begins.
Eason has been a solid backup for the Steelers. Moreover, he’s not particularly expensive. However, as with Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke, can the Steelers continue to invest in backup players who are in their 30′s? Eason’s inexpensive contract will probably buy him another year with the Steelers. But eventually, they have to begin grooming backup players who are in their 20′s, rather than in their 30′s.
Sunny Harris is a player who could potentially fill that role someday. However, I’m not optimistic. I’ve attended every day of Steelers Training Camp for the past 3 years, and I have yet to see Sunny Harris do a single thing that impressed me. He makes as many memorable plays as Tony Hills (and that’s not good). Harris’ age (24 years old) is a positive, but his playing ability is a negative. Nevertheless, unless the Steelers draft a few young defensive linemen, Sunny Harris will probably continue to waste space on the Steelers’ practice field.
I have a suggestion for you, Sunny; steroids.
Steve McClendon is an undersized 3rd string nose tackle who was brought up to the active roster due to injuries. Need I say any more about him?
So, let’s summarize. The Steelers have a bunch of 30-something defensive linemen who are nearing the end of their careers. Two thirds of the starters fall into this category, and all of their primary backups. They have only one player under 30 who gets significant playing time, and two other young backups who are not likely to make an impact in the near future. Do you think we might see the Steelers take a defensive lineman or two in the upcoming draft? I certainly hope so.
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