Cornerback, cornerback, cornerback.
That’s what most Steelers followers were thinking in the weeks leading up to the 2014 NFL draft.
Now, if the Steelers accomplish their mission, everyone will be thinking defensive line, defensive line, defensive line when they look back on this draft.
The Steelers didn’t get that fast, sleek, shiny new Lamborghini of a cornerback that everyone wanted in the early rounds. Instead, they got the big, ugly wood-paneled station wagon by drafting some big uglies up front.
In the second round, they chose Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame, a 6’6″, 312-pound defensive end who turns 21 on May 23. With their sixth-round compensatory pick, No. 215 overall, they took a chance on 6’7″, 348-pound Tennessee nose tackle Dan McCullers. Another player to keep an eye on is undrafted free agent Josh Mauro, a 6’6″, 271-pound defensive end from Stanford who reminds many of Brett Keisel.
Everyone wanted the see Ike Taylor’s heir apparent get the royal treatment at Radio City Music Hall, with a brand new Steelers ballcap, a No. 1 Steelers jersey and a bro hug from Roger Goodell. But as much as the Steelers needed a cornerback, they were dangerously thin at defensive line with the free-agent departures of Ziggy Hood and Al Woods.
Before the draft, the Steelers’ projected three-man front consisted of up-and-coming Cameron Heyward at defensive end, with Steve McLendon battling enigmatic free-agent signing Cam Thomas at nose tackle. The loser of that battle presumably would be moved to the other defensive end spot.
The top backup was Brian Arnfelt, an undrafted free agent last year who played two defensive snaps. Nick Williams, a seventh-rounder last year who spent the season on injured reserve after a knee injury, might not even be ready for OTAs, according to Rotoworld.
There’s also Hebron Fangupo, but he’s strictly a nose tackle. Al Lapuaho, a 6’3″, 284-pounder who the Steelers signed in January, joined the Dolphins practice squad last year after being cut by the Rams.
Heyward, the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2011, is the only one of the bunch drafted before the fifth round. That changed when the Steelers wrote Tuitt’s name on the card as this year’s 46th overall pick.
In an early-bird 2014 mock draft that I wrote for Bleacher Report last June, I had Tuitt going to the Steelers in the first round. He was coming off a 12-sack season with 13 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. He gained weight after off-season hernia surgery and struggled for much of 2013, which is why he slipped to the second round.
Tuitt slowly gained momentum as the season went on, and dominated in Notre Dame’s 14-10 win over USC. He had two sacks and a batted pass in the game. One of those sacks came on 4th-and-20 with the Trojans at Notre Dame’s 26 with less than three minutes to go and the Fighting Irish clinging to their four-point lead.
Two plays before that, Tuitt induced a holding penalty while rushing USC quarterback Cody Kessler, negating a Kessler scramble inside the 20. Earlier in the game, Tuitt showed enough speed to chase down a ball carrier after a 15-yard gain.
A foot fracture kept Tuitt out of the NFL Scouting Combine. Apparently he checked out medically with the Steelers if they took him in the second round.
Imagine Tuitt and Heyward, who according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) was seventh among the league’s defensive ends last season with 34 quarterback hurries, on either side of whoever wins the Steelers’ nose tackle job next season.
Unlike other teams in the AFC North, the Steelers aren’t telling their top draft picks to act like backups. The door is wide open for Tuitt and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, the Steelers’ first-round pick, to become the Steelers’ first Day One starters on defense since Kendrell Bell in 2001.
The Steelers’ aren’t in such a hurry to start McCullers. He didn’t always play up to his potential in college, according to NFL Draft Scout. Still, the Steelers got a colossal human being with 36 5/8-inch arms and 11-inch hands outside the top 200 picks. Not a bad value.
The pick also reaffirms that as much as nose tackles are de-emphasized in response to the NFL’s increasingly spread-out offenses, the Steelers still value a guy in the middle whose weight could be the top batting average in the National League. They drafted Alameda Ta’amu in the fourth round two years ago and got burned. Now they’re taking another shot in the dark to see if they can find someone who takes up as much space as Casey Hampton, and they’re risking less in doing so.
The Steelers have just as good a chance to restore what Keisel brought to this defense with Mauro. In fact, both NFL Draft Scout and NFL.com specifically mention Keisel as a pro player comparison to Mauro.
The British-born Mauro finally cracked the starting lineup in Week 3 of his senior season at Stanford. Over the past two seasons, he made 19.5 tackles for loss and had nine sacks. He might have to gain a few pounds to play defensive end in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense, but he has a disruptive streak and easily could have been drafted.
Mauro was part of the nation’s No. 16 defense with 343.5 yards allowed per game in 2013, according to College Football Reference. The Cardinal are actually listed 22nd, but six of the schools in front of them are lower-level schools that played a game or two against FBS teams and only those games are counted.
Tuitt helped Notre Dame become the No. 32 defense in the nation (366.2 yards per game). McCullers and Tennessee were 85th (418.4).
Even though these players are one of only 11 on the field at any given time, it’s interesting to look at how the overall defense fared. Ziggy Hood came from the point-a-minute Big 12, and Missouri was 99th in the country with 411.5 yards allowed per game. Hood wasn’t a bust, but for a first-round pick he was underwhelming in five years with the Steelers.
Heyward, on the other hand, might have been a late bloomer. But he had more impact last year than Hood ever did. Heyward was a cog in Ohio State’s No. 4 defense nationally (262.2 yards allowed per game) in 2010 before the Steelers made him their top pick in 2011.
Heyward must continue to develop and show that his breakout year wasn’t a flash in the pan.
And the Steelers provided him with some help in the draft.
Maybe a deeper, improved defensive line will force quarterbacks to throw bad passes and make the Steelers’ cornerbacks look a little more like shiny sports cars.