The Pittsburgh Steelers have a solid front four in terms of their starters at defensive line and outside linebacker. When the team is in its usual four-man defensive front, T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith will be the outside linebackers and Cam Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi will be the defensive tackles.
But the team is in search for a third option at both of those positions in the 2023 NFL Draft.
At defensive tackle, the Steelers hosted Clemson’s Bryan Bresee, Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton, Baylor’s Siaki Ika and Bowling Green’s Karl Brooks for pre-draft visits and sent Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan to see the pro days of Georgia’s Jalen Carter, Iowa’s Lukas Van Ness and Michigan’s Mazi Smith.
Along the edge, it was Kansas State’s Felix Anudike-Uzomah, Georgia Tech’s Keion White and USC’s Tula Tuipulotu coming to Pittsburgh and Khan and Tomlin going to see Georgia’s Nolan Smith, Clemson’s Myles Murphy, Iowa State’s Will McDonald IV and Ohio State’s Zach Harrison.
That’s a quarter of the team’s pre-draft visitors to Pittsburgh and a good portion of the number of prospects that the team scouted at pro days. Outside of offensive line and cornerback, defensive line and outside linebacker appear to be the big clear focuses of the pre-draft process, despite potentially bigger needs at linebacker and safety.
But with other needs in the way, it seems unlikely that the Steelers will be able to invest heavily in both defensive line and edge rusher early in the 2023 NFL Draft. And they might not have to.
The Steelers have a ready-made third option for one of those slots in 2022 third-round draft pick DeMarvin Leal. The question is just which one.
The Steelers announced Leal as a defensive lineman when they picked him out of Texas A&M last April. But Leal had played mostly defensive end in a 4-3 scheme with the Aggies, which usually translates to an outside linebacker with the Steelers.
But that didn’t really play out that way. Of Leal’s 175 snaps as a rookie in 2022, seven were as a stand-up Joker linebacker, 104 were as an edge rusher, 20 as an end in the Steelers’ base 3-4 defense, 41 as a three-technique defensive tackle and three playing on the nose.
There wasn’t a lot of trend to his positionality throughout the season. He played his most interior snaps in Week 1. His second-most were in Week 18. There was also a mid-season knee injury that set things back for Leal and may have impacted his usage.
So what is Leal going to be in 2023? It seems that it could be any of those options. He could keep playing mostly edge rusher and easily be the third wheel behind Watt and Highsmith in terms of rushing the passer. He could also continue to bulk up and slide in behind Heyward and Ogunjobi as the team’s third option for an interior defensive lineman.
Head coach Mike Tomlin is ultimately the person that will make that decision, but it doesn’t seem like he’s made up his mind just yet.
“There’s a lot of variables that determine that,” Tomlin said at his pre-draft press conference on Monday. “His level of readiness, his growth and development physically, mentally, how he processes the experiences of Year 1. I’m open and expect him to be on another level, like I do all guys. But I don’t know that I see it with great clarity as I sit here today. Still too many moving pieces.
“One of the major components of talent acquisition that remains to be done throughout this offseason, be it the draft or free agency, things of that nature. But make no mistake, he showed some things, particularly over the latter part of last year. It’s reasonable to expect him to build upon that. So, I’m open to it. But no definitive structure to it as we sit here today.”
Reading between the lines there, it sure seems like what Tomlin is saying is that the Steelers could see Leal as either an edge rusher or an interior defensive lineman, and that may be primarily determined by what the team does in the 2023 NFL Draft. If a top edge rusher falls to the Steelers, Leal may play inside, and vice versa.
That has to make for a tough offseason for Leal to prepare for, but he has prided himself on his ability to be a versatile player.
“I definitely want to still be a zero- through five-(technique),” he said last year.
Looks like he’s getting his wish.