Training Camp Preview and Roster Projections: Defensive Line

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Because sooner or later, we’ll all be trying to predict the final 53…

Likely Roster Spots: 6-7

Projected Starters: LDE Aaron Smith, NT Casey Hampton, RDE Brett Keisel

Key Training Camp Battles: Nick Eason, Sunny Harris, Doug Worthington and Scott Paxon fighting for last 1-2 DL spots on the 53-man roster.

Projected for 53-Man Roster: (6) Smith, Hampton, Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Chris Hoke, Harris

Analysis: Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel will be 34, 33 and 32, respectively, by Pittsburgh’s second game this fall. However, this group rivals the Pittsburgh linebackers as the best starting unit on the team and all three starters should be on the Steelers’ roster through at least 2011.

Hampton is the biggest name of the trio, having been selected to four Pro Bowls. However, when healthy, Smith is the unit’s best player and remains the prototype 3-4 DE teams desire.

Unfortunately for the Pittsburgh defense, Smith has become injury-prone as of late, missing the last 11 games of the 2009 season with a torn rotator cuff, and all or parts of seven games in 2007 with knee and arm injuries.

The Steelers stout run defense collapsed in 2007 without Smith, but held up fine without their quiet leader in 2009.

Pittsburgh’s front office was shrewd to franchise Hampton this offseason and surprisingly was then able to negotiate a 3-year, $21 million contract with Hampton, an unbelievably low price to land a perennial Pro Bowl nose tackle, all of who are highly coveted now with more teams employing the 3-4.

The fear with giving Hampton a long-term deal was that he would celebrate with a summer-long eating binge and little exercise. However, multiple reports out of Pittsburgh have Hampton regularly attending off-season conditioning drills and in good shape. Hampton is probably no longer the best 3-4 NT in the NFL, but he is one of the top 5, commanding double teams and stuffing the run on early downs. His value to Dick LeBeau’s defense cannot be over-stated.

Keisel has gone from project 7th -round pick out of BYU, to key reserve and special teams star, to one of the Steelers’ most dependable and under-rated starters. In part because he was not a starter until his fifth season, Keisel appears to still be improving as a player.

The Steelers made Ziggy Hood their first-round pick of the 2009 NFL Draft. He saw little action early in his rookie campaign, but garnered more playing time and improved his performance after the injury of Smith. Pittsburgh needs Hood to emerge as a very good No. 3 DE this fall, playing as much as 50% of the overall plays when everyone is healthy.

I was very happy with the Hood selection and most expected him to be a starter by now. In hindsight, though, the Steelers’ front office probably did not expect to be able to resign both Hampton and Keisel to hometown, low-priced, long-term deals.

Backup NT Chris Hoke is a valuable reserve who occasionally matches up with specific centers better than Hampton and is also a superior pass rusher compared to Hampton.

The top five defensive linemen are set. Then it gets interesting. The Steelers usually keep 6-7 defensive linemen on their 53-man roster, which often includes 24 defensive players.

It appeared the Steelers were set to keep seven defensive linemen after re-signing Nick Eason to a 1-year-deal this off-season. But that was before Pittsburgh drafted 10 players, and now has at least nine roster-worthy linebackers and 10 roster-worthy defensive backs. If they elect to keep a ninth linebacker such as 5th-round-pick Stevenson Sylvester or to keep six cornerbacks, either Sunny Harris or Eason will likely be cut.

Eason, a 30-year-old journeyman, was unimpressive in 2007 when he received his first extensive action with the Steelers, following the season-ending injury to Smith.

Eason, however, was a solid contributor and stout run defender in 2009 after Smith went down, earning a career-high five starts. Eason, though, recently lost 28 pounds from his 305-pound frame after undergoing emergency surgery to remove his appendix and part of his colon.

Although Eason said he should be back near full strength for training camp it will take some time and work to regain full strength, and he was not a very good athlete for an NFL defensive lineman to begin with.

Harris was extremely impressive in the 2009 preseason after the Steelers selected him in the 6th-round from Oregon. LeBeau, though, usually prefers veterans and Harris was released and signed to the practice squad. After a brief stint with the Carolina Panthers’ regular roster, the Steelers were able to resign Harris and put him on their 53-man roster after losing Smith.

Again, LeBeau prefers veterans with experience, seemingly giving an advantage to Eason. However, if it comes down to Eason and Harris again battling for the final roster spot, Harris has youth on his side, since keeping Eason would mean that five of the Steelers’ six defensive linemen would be 30 or older.

Doug Worthington, a 7th-round pick this spring, was likely selected for the practice squad but could stick on the roster with a strong camp, particularly if the Steelers keep seven defensive lineman. Scott Paxon is a tweener NT/DE from Penn State who is out of practice-squad eligibility with Pittsburgh and is a long shot to make the 53-man-roster.

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  • Tbart213

    Is there any chance that you could adopt a blog policy of only showing Casey with his shirt on?