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Steelers position review - Defensive Line

March 31, 2011 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

This is Part 4 of our Steelers position review series.  If you haven’t read Part 1 - 3, please click the links below.

Steelers position review - Cornerbacks

Steelers position review - Safeties

Steelers position review - Linebackers

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.

DE Brett Keisel

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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8 Comments to “Steelers position review - Defensive Line”

  1. Couldn’t have put it any better. I actually expected Aaron Smith to retire this offseason. He’s been awesome, but his career is coming to an end.

  2. Yeah Dan, it’s definitely going to be sad to see Aaron go. But eventually, all players must retire.

    Frankly, at the right price, Aaron would be a better backup than just about any young player that we could get. The problem is that the Steelers HAVE to get younger on their defensive line. They can’t keep putting it off forever.

  3. John#21 says:

    Well done! For me, the toughest part of assessing our DL is that they are all outstanding men as well as football players. Unfortunately, except for Ziggy, they are all coming to the end of their careers. With all due respect to Hokie & Eason, I wish we had younger back ups. We have used very late picks (Harris -7th rnd; Worthington -7th rnd) to add depth and they weren’t good enough to beat out the vets. We will have to selectively add a young DL with real promise at the expense of a veteran this year. I see us hanging on and hoping we can change out the old guard over the next 3 years. Based on age and injuries that may be much harder than it sounds.

  4. l can see a NT at Round 3-5. I’d hate to pass a corner in the 1st. Maybe this guy that’s ranked by Walterfootball.

    Sione Fua, NT, Stanford
    Height: 6-2. Weight: 310.
    Projected 40 Time: 5.18.
    Combine 40 Time: 5.28.
    Pro Day 40 Time: DNP.
    Benchx225: 30. Vertical: 27. Arm: 32 1/8.
    Projected Round (2011): 3-5.
    3/19/11: Sione Fua didn’t run the 40 at his Pro Day, but notched a vertical of 27 inches and worked out in the drills in front of 22 teams.

    10/8/10: Fua has had an impressive season for the Cardinal doing a great job of holding up at the point of attack and taking on multiple blockers. He’s been disruptive and has right combination of bulk and strength teams are looking for in a 1-technique. He’s slowly rising up boards.

    Holding up multiple blockers at the point of attack works for me.

  5. “He makes as many memorable plays as Tony Hills” — too funny!

    “Do you think we might see the Steelers take a defensive lineman or two in the upcoming draft? I certainly hope so.”
    Yes I do, but I’ve been thinking that for years and only Hood has happened.

    I can see them keeping Eason and adding a DE high in the draft.

  6. I do think it is a time for change. A. Smith I think it is time to go also. I would give C. Hampton “the hamburger’ another yr. but find a good bakc-up to take his place…We need to inprove our defense. Need some good cornes too.

  7. Jim,
    That’s exactly what I think will happen. I think they draft at least one D-lineman, Eason lasts another year, and Hoke & Smith are done. Then they’ll pray that either Harris or McClendon will show them something during training camp.

    But I’ve been saying that they should get younger for years now, and they haven’t done it, so my guess is likely to be wrong….again. :-(

  8. I would not be surprised to see a high draft pick spent here. What if Pouncey is gone and they do not see a corner they like? We need some fresh defensive lineman, and the Nose tackle position needs it the worst. I do not think Aaron Smith will retire. He will play but see less time because Ziggy is doing so well.


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