It’s hard to ignore the fact that the Steelers are going to need to find their next Casey Hampton sooner rather than later. The big snack has done his job since 2001 when he was drafted by Bill Cowher. He’s been a run stopping machine for 157 games with Pittsburgh. At 6’1″ and listed at 325 lbs (most assume he runs closer to 340), Hampton has been a staple on the Steelers defense virtually his entire career. He’s coming off ACL surgery though and while Kevin Colbert said Hampton will be back in 2012, it’s likely he could be on the PUP list to start the year. Even if that were not the case, Casey doesn’t have many years left and the Steelers still value the NT enough that they may consider taking his replacement this coming April in the draft.
There are 3 highly regarded prospects that will be available to the Steelers: Penn State’s Devon Still, Dontari Poe out of Memphis, and Alameda Ta’amu from Washington.
Dontari Poe is considered the more prototypical 3-4 NT at 6’4″ 346 lbs. He’s a mammoth of an individual more than capable of holding his own against the run or the pass. He started in 30 of 35 games the last 3 years, totaled 101 tackles and 21.5 tackles for loss. Poe believes he’s versatile enough to play not only at nose but also end as well. He’s projected as of now to be a mid 1st round to mid 2nd round selection.
If there is a knock on him it’s that he needs to learn to disengage from contact especially in the run game and not get run out of the out play. That can be taught though at the pro level as he’ll face stiff competition from NFL offensive lineman.
Poe said his biggest strength is his explosiveness, and likes to surprise offensive linemen who think he only uses power moves.
“I think I can rush the passer a lot more than people think,” Poe said. “I am used to playing nose tackle, but I played some three-technique, some five-technique. I’m pretty comfortable anywhere along the defensive line. “I think I’m pretty explosive. That’s probably my biggest strength. Most people think just because I’m big I do nothing but power. But I kind of use my quickness to my advantage.”
Devon Still also believes he can play in either the 4-3 or the 3-4 and be successful. Still is 6’5″ 301 lbs, hardly a small individual but the Steelers traditionally prefer their NT’s to be a big bigger; ie Casey Hampton. That’s not to say that Still wouldn’t be able to fit in though; Steve McLendon is listed at just about 300 lbs. and played well in limited duty this past season for the Steelers.
Still is a powerful lineman with a monster first punch off the ball. If he gets his hands on you he’ll walk any offensive line into the backfield. Having watched Penn State play regularly I’ve seen this first hand. He can occupy a double team as well as anyone; certainly a big factor in a defense like the Steelers run.
The major concerns with Devon Still are that he tends to play high and can get knocked off the ball if he doesn’t get the first step at the snap. He’s also had some injury problems in 2007 (ACL & MCL tear) and 2008 broken ankle.
The technique can be worked on once he gets drafted and even the injury history won’t keep him from going past the first round. Still is projected as 1st round selection at DE but could also go early as a NT instead.
Alameda Ta’amu is 6’3″ 341 lbs, and certainly has the size a team like the Steelers would be looking for. He’s strong at the point of attack and able to hold his own in the run game. Ta’amu is regarded student of the game and a good character individual.
He’s considered to be more of a raw talent now that could develop into a force on the defensive line. He also has an issue with getting his pads too high and getting blown off the ball at times. His hand technique and initial punch off the snap will need to be developed too. He’s considered a 2nd round pick now by most experts mainly because his production suffered in his senior year and that appears to have knocked him out of the first round to possibly as far as the early 3rd round. It wouldn’t surprise anyone though if he’s taken earlier, especially if both Poe and Still are gone.
Any of these players would be a solid addition to the Steelers defense, and both Poe & Still especially can be versatile enough to play on the nose or end; something the Steelers love in lineman. “Versatility is huge,” Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “You have to be able to play in a base defense first. But if there’s other things they can do from an athletic standpoint, that’s obviously a boon. It gives the coaches a lot more flexibility in what they can do. Is it necessary? No. Is it a bonus? Yes.”