Steelers' defensive line gets deeper with former top-10 pick Tyson Alualu
It was one of their biggest signings of an unrestricted free agent from another team the Steelers have made in the past decade, which says more about the Steelers' approach than it does about Tyson Alualu.
Still, for a team that rarely does its shopping for starting-caliber players in March, the acquisition of the former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive lineman was not insignificant.
A former first-round pick and veteran of 87 NFL starts, Alualu agreed to a two-year, $6 million deal two weeks into the league's free-agency period this spring.
The signing lacked the flash of some others around the league at that time. How relevant is it to the Steelers' salary cap? Put it this way: Alualu's $2.375 million hit for 2017 ranks as the 16th highest on the team and just above what is devoted to a backup quarterback in Landry Jones.
Still, by the Steelers' standards in free agency, Alualu was one of the biggest splashes they have made in recent years. Only Mike Mitchell (five years, $25 million in 2014) and Ladarius Green (four years, $20 million in 2016) have been given bigger deals among players signed away from another team since 2010.
In other words, even though Alualu was brought in as a backup to what figures to be a stellar starting defensive line of Stephon Tuitt, Cameron Heyward and Javon Hargrave, that doesn't mean the Steelers don't have some solid expectations for what Alualu can provide.
“He has a great motor,” said Heyward, a defensive co-captain. “You saw that back in Jacksonville, but he brought it over here. He's in good shape and then he has a good range of pass rush. He was drafted in the first round for a reason, and I'm just glad it worked out he came here.”
Alualu has been a regular part of the Steelers' second unit on the defensive line throughout training camp. As durable as he has been throughout his NFL career (Alualu has missed just two of 112 games since he was drafted No. 10 overall out of Cal in 2010), Alualu has shown equally as reliable during his first camp with the Steelers.
Day in and day out, Alualu has been running alongside L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey in what has been a formidable second unit. The Steelers have been lacking quality depth on the defensive line in recent years and have taken a few swings in free agency to address it (think Cam Thomas, Ricardo Mathews).
In Alualu, they brought in the highest-pedigree defensive lineman to date. He has shown to be a workmanlike — albeit not flashy — lineman at St. Vincent practices.
“If he just continues to pick up the playbook,” Heyward said, “he's going to get a numerous amount of snaps, whether it be on my side or Tuitt's side. But he can also play nose, as well. So he is very versatile when he can play.”
Alualu has mostly been at left end, but at times he has lined up on the right side or even at nose tackle. In the nickel, Alualu has played on both sides.
A Hawaii native, Alualu did not appear in a playoff game nor have a winning season in any of his first seven years in the pros. The 11 games the Jaguars won the past three seasons combined match how many the Steelers won in the regular season alone in 2016.
For Alualu, playing for a winner was more than enough of a trade-off than seeking a starting role.
“Just seeing how things are ran here, the organization from top to bottom, front office to the players, it's just something I wanted to be a part of,” Alualu said. “That's a big part of why I wanted to be part of it. So wherever I am needed, wherever they want me to play, I just want to help this team get to that level.”
While most NFL teams run a deep rotation on the defensive line, the Steelers have tended to ride Heyward and Tuitt in recent years, in part because they lacked sufficient faith in their backups. Alualu alleviates that. Also, Heyward and Tuitt have combined to miss 16 games over the past two seasons. So odds are Alualu, one way or another, will get his share of playing time.
“To not have that big of a drop-off from the first group to second group is what we strive for,” Alualu said. “When you can just get guys rolling, it will keep guys fresh and give us a better opportunity to do our job, which is to affect the quarterback.”