PITTSBURGH — The trajectory of a draft pick from the day they get their first call from Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is never set in stone. Some players take the field for the first week of their rookie season and some take years to develop into the kind of player envisioned when they were selected.
Everyone involved is usually at least somewhat patient with that process, as long as the trajectory and the path to eventually reaching that potential exists.
When it’s not, that’s when people start to question the future of the player involved and the wisdom of his selection in the first place.
Unfortunately, that appears to be where the Steelers are headed with 2022 third-round pick DeMarvin Leal. Leal was always a curious fit for the Steelers, and it’s one that hasn’t seemed to get better as his years have gone on.
Leal came out of Texas A&M measuring at 6-foot-3, 283 pounds. That’s an odd size for what the 3-4 Steelers usually look for in defenders.
Steelers 3-4 end and four-man front tackle Cam Heyward is 6-foot-5, 295 pounds. Steelers 3-4 outside linebacker and four-man front end T.J. Watt is 6-foot-4, 251 pounds.
That made Leal a “tweener,” and it made it hard to see exactly where he’d fit in with the team in his future. In 2022, he played 1-4 snaps as an edge rusher, 20 snaps over the tackle as a 3-4 end and 43 snaps as an interior defensive lineman, according to PFF’s charting.
His rookie year wasn’t statistically dominant, but he got enough playing time to look like he could be a future piece of the puzzle. In 2023, Leal played more than he did in 2022, and that’s promising. He also saw a different role, playing less edge rusher (33 snaps), more 3-4 end (106 snaps) and more defensive tackle (66 snaps).
So Leal got more playing time and his role came into greater focus, with the Steelers pushing him more to the interior of their defense. Where’s the problem? Almost all of that playing time came in the first third of the season. He did not play 10 snaps in a game after Week 10. He wasn’t dressed at all for four of the team’s final five games. That’s not how a young player wants to finish his season.
I asked Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin if he still sees a place for Leal in the team’s future plans, and he said they did, but seemed to imply that the answer lies with Leal.
“There certainly is, but he’s got to be a component of that,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, we put helmets on guys that we think are best positioned to help us secure victory and he hadn’t been a component of that. And so, he’s got some work to do.”
So how does Leal plan to move forward after a disheartening second half of the season?
“I think it’s just get with the coaches, like I plan on doing some time this week and just reflecting on the season and just taking all those scratches and all those situations just healing from it, taking it and using it as momentum for next year,” he said. “We’ll see exactly what they want from me, what they need me to do and we’ll get to it.”
Leal remains under a reasonable salary thanks to his rookie contract, and there are two free agents on the defensive line in Montravius Adams and Armon Watts. Some attrition could open up a greater role for him in 2024.
But if it does, he’ll need to take advantage of it. Leal has the potential to be an inside-outside pass rushers that can be a change of pace to stars like Heyward and Watt. But one career sack through two seasons isn’t providing a lot of optimism right now for the future.
Leal is going to have to re-earn the enthusiasm that his draft slot brought when he first landed in Pittsburgh.