One of the Steelers' longest-tenured players, Daniel McCullers keeps surviving; will he again?
Only seven of the 55 other players who appeared in a game for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the recently-completed season have been with the team longer than Daniel McCullers.
But as a pending unrestricted free agent, will Big Dan be back for a sixth season in black-and-gold?
“We’ll just see what happens, you know?” the big defensive tackle said on the day after the Steelers’ season ended. “I’m just going to have a clear mind with what is going on.”
As one of the biggest players in the NFL (listed at 6 feet 7, 352 pounds), McCullers has always tantalized the Steelers with potential, particularly as a hole-plugging run-stopper. A sixth-round pick in a 2014 draft that produced one of the players he backs up, Stephon Tuitt, McCullers has struggled to find a regular role on defense over his time with the Steelers.
McCullers has appeared in 57 games, starting three. According to Pro Football Focus, he has averaged 9.2 defensive snaps played per game over his career – but that total jumped significantly from 13 snaps played all of 2017 to 111 this past season.
That jump in playing time coincides with a change in his position coach from John Mitchell to Karl Dunbar.
“They are both great coaches, hard-nosed coaches,” McCullers said. “Dunbar is just a little younger, and I would say that he relates to us a little bit more. But they are both great coaches.
“Dunbar, I learned a lot from him this year. He likes me as a player, he always encourages me to go out there and give it my all and be the player that I know I can be.”
McCullers had a sack among his five tackles this season, playing as many as 18 snaps (against Jacksonville on Nov. 18) to as few as zero (he was not active Nov. 8 against Carolina). Though the role of the traditional “nose tackle” is dwindling in today’s NFL, there’s still a niche for a stout run-stopper in certain subpackages, against certain teams or in certain situations.
The Steelers have one of the best defensive front three in the NFL in Cameron Heyward, Tuitt and Javon Hargrave, so that is at least partially why McCullers has had trouble getting on the field. McCullers is one of the three backup defensive linemen the Steelers carried all season (joining Tyson Alualu and L.T. Walton) – all of whom will be unrestricted free agents. As such, his future with the team is in doubt.
But through two coordinators, two position coaches and a host of others in his supporting cast on the second-team defensive line, McCullers has remained a constant for five years now. As many times as it appeared his Steelers tenure was coming to an end, McCullers kept surviving and persevering.
Even last year at this time, when he also was a free agent, McCullers re-signed in March. Apparently, the Steelers keep finding something they like about Big Dan.
“Five years is a lot longer than a lot of people,” McCullers said of playing in the NFL. “So they like me as a player; I’ve just got to keep building and try to get past that level they want me at. I feel like I can get there; I just have to put in that work and get better.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.