Our second look in the Pittsburgh Steelers' pre-draft series is defensive end.
Overview: The Steelers appear to be in excellent shape at the top of their depth chart. Cameron Heyward has only started one full season but the right defensive end has already established himself as one of the Steelers' best defensive players and leaders. Heyward led the Steelers in 2014 with 21 quarterback pressures and tied for the team lead with 7 ½ sacks. Stephon Tuitt has immense promise and he made steady strides as a rookie despite playing limited snaps until the final quarter of the season. A season-ending triceps injury sustained by Brett Keisel in late November -- and Tuitt's own improvement -- elevated him to the starting lineup, and the 6-foot-5, 303-pounder gave the Steelers a glimpse of the future in the penultimate game of the season. Tuitt recorded his first NFL sack and forced a critical fumble in the Steelers' 20-12 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. It's early but Tuitt looks like a player the Steelers will build around in the coming seasons.
Draft priority: Medium. Heyward has played in 64 consecutive games, the third-longest streak among NFL defensive ends, but even with such durability the Steelers are only an injury away from trouble at the position. Cam Thomas is the only backup with significant NFL experience and journeyman Clifton Geathers is the only other defensive end on the roster with any NFL experience. The Steelers need to add a developmental player at the spot by drafting one or signing an undrafted free agent who slips through the cracks.
Last player drafted at position: Tuitt. The Steelers were elated when Tuitt fell to them in the second round last year. The former Notre Dame standout had been projected as a possible first-round pick and Tuitt could go down as a steal in the second round where the Steelers got him with the 46th-overall pick.
Dream pick: Xavier Cooper, Washington State. Cooper visited the Steelers earlier this month and ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has the 6-4, 299-pounder among the rising players in the draft. Kiper ranks Cooper as the sixth-best defensive tackle in the draft though he projects as an end in a 3-4 defense. Cooper probably won't last past the third round and that may be too early for the Steelers to add depth at a position when they have myriad other needs on defense.
Practical pick: Henry Anderson, Stanford. There seems to be questions about where the 6-6, 294-pounder will play at the next level. Anderson recorded 15 tackles and 8 ½ sacks last season for the Cardinal but may not be athletic enough to play as an edge pass-rusher next season. He may need to get stronger to play defensive end. Without a clear-cut position, Anderson could slide in the draft and may be available in the fourth or even fifth round for the Steelers.
He said it: "He didn't die on the vine the way some rookies are capable of dying. I think his arrow was pointed up at the end of the season and from that standpoint it's exciting. He's a talented young guy. But obviously that journey is going to be determined about what he is willing to do and not what he is capable of." – Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on Tuitt.