PITTSBURGH — Ever since the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted DeMarvin Leal out of Texas A&M in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, people have wondered what position he would end up playing.
Leal played defensive end in a 4-3 scheme in college, and most of those players making the transition to the Steelers’ 3-4 over the years have settled in at outside linebacker, like current starting OLB Alex Highsmith.
But Leal is a good bit bigger than most of those players have been. Highsmith is is 6-foot-4, 242 pounds. Leal is 6-foot-4, 290 pounds.
What that really makes Leal is an ideal 3-4 defensive end. Think of a player like former Steelers end Brett Keisel. He was listed at 6-foot-5, 285 pounds — a long player with a high motor that first got his NFL start covering kickoffs. Older Steelers fans will recall 3-4 ends like Kevin Henry (6-foot-4, 282 pounds) and Donald Evans (6-foot-2, 282 pounds) that filled that role.
The problem with that is that the Steelers don’t really use their base 3-4 “Okie” defense all that much anymore. Their most-used defensive front is a 4-2 Nickel, with a 4-1 Dime also getting a good amount of playing time. In those four-man fronts, the Steelers use outside linebackers Highsmith and T.J. Watt at end. But that’s the position that Leal played in college, and he can certainly be that in the NFL.
He is also not that much smaller than defensive tackles Cam Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi, the players that he’ll play behind as a defensive end in the base 3-4. They play tackle in the four-man fronts, and he could likely do the same.
From an ideal athlete standpoint, Leal is too big to be an edge rusher, too quick and athletic to be a defensive tackle. But maybe that’s missing the point. Maybe Leal’s position isn’t outside linebacker, or defensive end, or defensive tackle.
Maybe it’s relief pitcher.
Well, not exactly. Although, the Pirates bullpen could certainly use some help, I haven’t found any evidence that Leal can pitch. What he can be is a relief pitcher in spirit, if not in actual ability.
In baseball, managers know the starting pitchers in advance and set their lineups accordingly. If a team is starting a crafty lefty, a team might game-plan around that and leave the left-handed power bats on the bench.
Once the game starts, those hitters that are in the lineup start to get dialed into the approach of that day’s opposite starter. So when the opposing manager goes to the bullpen, he doesn’t typically ask for a carbon copy of that day’s starter. If he had a soft-tosser in there, he may go to a fireballer. Or a lefty instead of a right. A strikeout pitcher versus someone that pitches to contact.
What’s important in that instance is not only the absolute skill of the new pitcher coming into the game, but also the change in matchup that he represents.
“It’s a little bit of a change and how fast can you adjust to it,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “Hopefully, we win battles in the meantime.”
Just like a relief pitcher does not have to have the same skills as a starer, Leal doesn’t need to have an ideal body type for any of his positions in order to be effective. And like a good reliever, he’s versatile enough to come in following a variety of others. He can follow Heyward and be a change up with more speed and athleticism. He can come in behind Highsmith and be a stronger, harder-to-move player.
“We’ve got the big strong guys and then you got this guy who’s like a big athlete,” Austin said. “You know, a real slippery, flexible, really, unique for that big guy position. And I think he’s embraced it. And I like it. I think he’s kind of a Swiss Army knife that can do a lot of different things and create some problems for the other team.”
Eventually, the Steelers hope for Leal to become a starter at one of those positions. But in the meantime, being a top-flight reliever can make the team a lot better.
“The standard is the standard,” Leal said. “When my time comes in, or the other guys’ time comes in behind them, I have to understand that we’re going to keep it the same.”
Every NFL player wants to be a starter, but for now, Leal might be better off setting his sights on being a closer.