Steelers offseason positional outlook: Defensive linemen
Editor’s note: This is Part 7 of a 12-part series breaking down the Pittsburgh Steelers at each position in the offseason. All salary-cap information courtesy spotrac.com.
The starters for 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers along the defensive line are set in stone. But with rotations so common at the position, who else makes the roster?
Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave return for their fourth season together as the first-team defensive line. All three of their backups on the active roster this past season, though, are unrestricted free agents.
So even with relative stability and recent high-level play, the Steelers face plenty of decisions over the offseason in preparing their defensive line. In addition to weighing whether to bring back top backups Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton, Hargrave is due a contract extension.
Hargrave established himself almost immediately as a starting-caliber player after being taken in the third round of the 2016 draft. Initially, though, his playing time was limited by function of the position he was slotted into (nose tackle). NFL offenses are adding more and more skill-position receivers and fewer and fewer “big” personnel, causing defenses to make corresponding adjustments.
Hargrave, though, has changed with the times, and the Steelers have adapted in how they deploy him. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds, Hargrave increasingly has rotated at defensive end and as one of two defensive linemen used when the Steelers go nickel, dime or one of their myriad other DB-heavy looks.
Still, Hargrave played just 43.6 percent of the defensive snaps in 2018 and hasn’t surpassed 47 percent in any of his three seasons. Will the organization want to pay starting-level money to someone who’s on the field less than half the time?
Heyward and Tuitt are locked up, and they have performed at a level commensurate with the five-year, approximately $60 million contracts each is playing under.
Alualu was the perfect No. 4 linemen over the past two seasons, but will the Steelers bring him back at the $3 million-plus salary he made in 2017-18? McCullers has five years — but only 522 snaps — of experience in the Steelers’ system. He always seems to find his way onto the 53-man roster.
Walton has four years on the roster, but he appeared in only four games and played just 52 defensive snaps this past season.
Lavon Hooks is on track to appear in his fifth NFL training camp and his fourth with the Steelers. But he’s yet to crack the 53-man roster and at 27 with no practice-squad eligibility remaining, time is running out.
The Steelers signed former Wisconsin defensive lineman Conor Sheehy to a reserve/future deal earlier this week. But outside of him and Hooks, the Steelers will have to look externally for their defensive line depth.
Offseason outlook: Defensive linemen
• Cameron Heyward, 2 years left on contract, $14.9 million cap hit for 2019
• Stephon Tuitt, 4 years left on contract, $13.64 million cap hit for 2019
• Javon Hargrave, 1 year left on contract, $893,314 cap hit for 2019
• Lavon Hooks, practice squad
• Tyson Alualu, unrestricted, $3.625 million cap hit in 2018
• Daniel McCullers, unrestricted, $720,000 cap hit in 2018
• L.T. Walton, unrestricted, $734,234 cap hit in 2018
Up next: Outside linebackers
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .