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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Looking at the defensive line

Priorities are what often drive a draft more than anything else. As much as teams like to pay lip service to the old "best player available" mantra, let’s be honest about something for a second: Few teams, if any, actually work their draft in that matter.

We're going to take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, position by position, over the next month as we try to get a better handle on what directions the team will go on April 28 and 29.

Today: The defensive line

Where's the depth?

We know that new head coach Mike Tomlin plans on sticking with the 3-4 defense for the Steelers – at least through this season. One reason for that is that the team just doesn't have much depth on the defensive line.

Starters Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel are a solid group and are a big reason why the Steelers were so good against the run last season, allowing just 88.2 yards per game. Smith and Keisel were also solid rushing the passer, combining for 10 sacks and 44 pressures.

In fact, you could easily argue the defensive line was the best unit on the team last season.

But behind those three heading into this draft are aging Travis Kirschke, Chris Hoke and Nick Eason, signed earlier this week after spending the previous two seasons with the Browns. The team also has defensive tackle Scott Paxson and end Shaun Nua waiting in the wings after spending last season on the practice squad, but the team isn't expecting much from either of them.

Kirschke enters his 10th NFL season as a player who is clearly on the decline. A nagging back injury has limited his practice time in each of the previous two seasons and the new coaching staff has to be looking for an upgrade at the end position, especially if plans for Keisel to log some time at linebacker work out. At this stage of his career, Kirschke isn't a player the Steelers want to put on the field for 20 to 25 plays. In fact, Kirschke logged 20 or more plays just once last season – at Carolina.

Hoke is a nice complimentary player to Hampton in that he gives the team something as a nose tackle that Hampton does – a pass rush. And he also proved three years ago when Hampton was lost for the season with a knee injury that he could step into the starting lineup and perform. But, like Kirschke, Hoke is no spring chicken. Hoke turns 31 in a couple of weeks.

The 6-3, 310-pound Eason will help the team ease the loss of Rodney Bailey, who signed with Arizona as a free agent. The 25-year-old Eason is the youngster of this bunch and has experience as a 3-4 end after his days with the Browns. Given that experience did come with Cleveland, he may need some time to adjust to a different – winning – program.

At 6-4, 292 pounds, Paxson has good size, but also plays too high. Maybe a season on the practice squad will have cured him of that, but that remains to be seen.

This will be a make-or-break season for Nua, who has spent the past two seasons on the practice squad. He entered the 2006 season expected to beat Bailey out for a reserve spot on the roster, but was unable to make it happen. Nua just doesn't have the motor of fellow BYU graduates Keisel and Hoke.

Because of the excellent crop of defensive linemen available, the team's lack of depth at the position, and Tomlin's past experience with a 4–3 defense, this looks like an excellent place to start when looking at first–day prospects in this draft. In fact, don't be surprised if the Steelers take a couple of defensive linemen in this draft to begin stockpiling talent at the position.

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