Steelers training camp preview: Is it Tuitt's turn for a breakout season?
The Tribune-Review will examine each position on the Steelers roster as they prepare to report for training camp July 25 at Saint Vincent. Today’s installment looks at the nine defensive ends:
Cameron Heyward: He still hasn’t been selected to a Pro Bowl, but a bigger honor — an All-Pro selection — came Heyward’s way in 2017. He rebounded from an injury-shortened 2016 to set a career high with 12 sacks, just the third such season by a Steelers defensive lineman.
Stephon Tuitt: A torn biceps injury on the second snap of the season limited Tuitt the entire year. Not the kind of year he wanted after receiving a six-year contract the night prior to the season opener. If healthy, Tuitt provides a dependable bookend to Heyward and gives the Steelers another effective pass rusher.
Tyson Alualu: He had a career-high four sacks in limited playing time. More importantly, Alualu solidified what had been a revolving door among veteran backup defensive linemen in recent seasons. He returns for the second season of a two-year deal he signed in 2017.
L.T. Walton: In his third season, Walton appeared in every game, collected two sacks and was used when the Steelers rested Heyward and Tuitt. He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract, a pivotal time in the former sixth-round pick’s career.
Joshua Frazier: The Steelers used their seventh-round pick to take Frazier, who primarily was a backup at Alabama. He also projects as a nose tackle, but Frazier believes he is versatile enough to play all over the line.
On camp roster
Lavon Hooks: Time is running out for Hooks, who spent all of last season on the Steelers practice squad and has never played in an NFL game despite being a member of the 2015 draft class. The Steelers gave Hooks considerable time with the first-team defense in organized team activities while Heyward and Walton were nursing injuries.
Greg Gilmore: Although he played nose tackle the past two years at LSU, Gilmore is listed as a defensive end. He had 7.5 sacks as a senior and could push Frazier, Hooks and nose tackle Daniel McCullers for the final spot on the defensive line.
Kendal Vickers: At Tennessee, Vickers played outside linebacker and defensive end before bulking up to play defensive tackle. He had 13.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 42 career games. Like Gilmore, he was among the undrafted free agents signed immediately after the NFL Draft.
Casey Sayles: He spent the 2017 training camp with the Los Angeles Rams but was out of work until the Steelers signed him to a futures contract in January. The Ohio University alum, at 22, is one of the youngest players among the defensive line prospects.
Can Tuitt put his injury-marred 2017 season behind him?
The Steelers saw star potential in Tuitt when they gave him a long-term contract the day before the season opener last year. Perhaps, like Heyward in 2017, Tuitt will break through as one of the NFL’s top defensive ends in 2018. His play could be the key to the Steelers improving their numbers against the run.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.