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Steelers sign nose tackle Cam Thomas

AP
Nose tackle Cam Thomas, who spent the past four seasons with the Chargers, signed with the Steelers on Friday, March 14, 2014.

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By Alan Robinson
Friday, March 14, 2014, 3:45 p.m.
 

The Steelers' defensive line went from thin to Casey Hampton-sized with a stroke of Cam Thomas' pen.

Now, all the Steelers must figure out is where to play Thomas, a 6-foot-3, 330-pound nose tackle who signed a $4 million, two-year contract Friday. He started 11 games last season with the San Diego Chargers, but was benched during the final three weeks of the season for Pete Lissemore.

The Steelers played host Friday to another defensive lineman, one whose position wouldn't be in doubt — pass-rushing end Alex Carrington, who was limited by a quadriceps injury to three games with Buffalo last season. Carrington seems to be a good fit for Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense — he was not as suited to Buffalo's 4-3 — but he also plans to visit the Cleveland Browns. New Browns coach Mike Pettine was the Bills defensive coordinator last season.

With Thomas locked up, the Steelers could move Steve McLendon, their starting nose tackle last season, to defensive end or use Thomas to back up McLendon. Or they could use both McLendon and Thomas playing together in sub-package defenses in which they want to neutralize the middle of the line of scrimmage. They also have the little-used Hebron Fangupo at nose tackle, but he played only 13 snaps last season.

Before signing Thomas, the Steelers were becoming precariously thin on the defensive line following the departures of free agents Al Woods (Titans) and Ziggy Hood (Jaguars). Defensive end Brett Keisel also is a free agent, but the Steelers have not moved to re-sign him.

Thomas isn't an effective pass rusher but, like the massive Hampton, is considered to be a better run defender who could restore some of the physicality that was missing with the Steelers defense last season after Hampton wasn't brought back. The Steelers tumbled to No. 12 against the run, their worst ranking under LeBeau and down from No. 2 in 2012, and they allowed an average of 25 more rushing yards per game more than they did that season.

Thomas, who is nicknamed “Baby Zilla,” becomes the second free agent signed during an unusually busy week of activity by the Steelers, joining safety Mike Mitchell. Thomas graded out 49th among the top 68 defensive ends/tackles evaluated by Pro Football Focus.

Thomas, a fifth-round pick from North Carolina in 2010, had one interception last season, but hasn't had a sack since getting four in 2011. He has six career sacks in 54 games, with 16 starts.

Thomas' deal includes a $1 million signing bonus and salaries of $1 million in 2014 and $2 million in 2015. His cap hit will be $1.5 million this year and $2.5 million in 2015.

While the Steelers try to work out a deal to bring back wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, former starting wideout Emmanuel Sanders also remains unsigned. Sanders has visited with the Jaguars, Bucs and Chiefs and is scheduled to visit the 49ers on Saturday. Former Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer's one-year contract with the Cardinals is worth $750,000 — a strong sign the Steelers weren't very interested in re-signing him.

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