This is the ninth in a series in which I will examine every position relative to the 2013 season – and look take a look ahead.
2014 free agents: None.
The good: Steve McLendon made some plays in his first season as a starter, most notably in the Pittsburgh Steelers' 37-27 win over the Detroit Lions. McLendon and defensive end Cameron Heyward snuffed out a fake field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter, and the Steelers scored 14 unanswered points on the way to one of their biggest wins of the season. McLendon, who made 33 tackles in 14 games, again showed that he can help the Steelers. The question is whether he is a nose tackle in a 3-4 defense or is a better fit as a situational tackle who can also play end.
The bad: The Steelers plummeted from second in the NFL in rushing defense in 2012 to No. 21, and they gave up 25 more yards per game in 2013. That is not all on McLendon but it hardly seems a coincidence that the precipitous drop came the season after the Steelers’ parted ways with Casey Hampton. The five-time Pro Bowler proved to be an immovable force in the middle of the Steelers defense during a borderline Hall of Fame career. Any questions about how valuable Hampton was to the defense were answered the season after the organization opted not to re-sign him. Hebron Fangupo, McLendon’s backup, has more of the squat build associated with nose tackle, but he played just 13 snaps last season. And Fangupo, who turns 29 just before the start of training camp, can hardly be considered a developmental player.
The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): McLendon’s cap hit will be $2.98 million and that number is reasonable enough for the Steelers to keep him even if they take a nose tackle early in the 2014 NFL draft. McLendon can play both tackle and end and provide depth at each position if he loses his starting job at nose tackle.
Draft priority: High. The Steelers have to shore up their run defense as longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau is at his best when opposing offenses are consistently forced into second- and third-and-long. ESPN NFL draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay each have the Steelers taking Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III in their initial mock drafts (first round only). A case can be making both for and against using the No. 15 overall pick on a nose tackle. For: the Pittsburgh defense is predicated on stopping the run. Against: the NFL has become such a passing league that teams play nickel as much as their base defense, marginalizing the nose tackle position.