As always, here’s the weekly post prologue urging you to listen to quality, informative audio entertainment in the form of the Steelers Roundtable show on TribLive Radio. Mark Kaboly, Ralph Paulk and I discuss how the Broncos defense’s dominating performance in the Super Bowl relates to the Steelers’ immediate future. We also delve some into the team’s free agency priorities. It’s the final show for six weeks, so click here to listen now while you have the chance!
While you’re at it, check out Monday’s episode of The Kaboly Show – although it continues year-round, because Mark is special.
The 2015 season began with a degree of promise for Daniel McCullers. Coming off a rookie season in which he gradually went from “project” to “usable rotational defensive lineman” as a 22-year-old sixth-round pick, it was looking as if the Steelers might have found something in the former Tennessee Volunteer who stands 6 feet 7 and weights, oh, somewhere in the neighborhood of between 350-400 pounds.
McCullers played 35 snaps during the first two games of this past season, and one school of thought was that he was being groomed to take over as the top nose tackle with Steve McLendon scheduled to become in unrestricted free agent in March.
But then a knee injury struck McCullers, and he missed the next three games. He’d end up playing just 70 snaps over the final 11 games of the season – 26 of which coming Nov. 1 against Cincinnati when end Stephon Tuitt was out because of injury. In Seattle four weeks later, McCullers didn’t play at all. He played just 12 snaps over the final five games (counting playoffs).
It was clear that McCullers didn’t do enough to earn the coaches’ trust. On a team with a thin defensive line and one in which one of the stellar ends (Cameron Heyward) said after the season that he and Tuitt would prefer not to carry so heavy a load, McCullers wasn’t able to get on the field too much.
McCullers played about as much over the final 10 games of 2015 as he did in 2014, and he was mostly (barring an injury to someone else) just a subpackage, situational, specialized player.
Still, the big guy insists he was “most definitely” a better player in ’15 than he was as a rookie.
“I learned a lot being with the Steelers and with this D-line, being with Cam, Tuitt, all the guys, you learn so much,” McCullers told me last month. “And I’m gonna take it all in. I feel like I am progressing a lot and getting better each and every week.”
When McCullers was drafted, keeping his weight down was the concern that jumped out. It likely will always be something he has to keep in check, as his stated priorities for the offseason exhibit:
“My plan is just to stay in the best shape I can possible,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing, don’t lose my shape, don’t get out of shape and come back ready to go. And continue to work on my fundamentals and my technique.”
McCullers said the defensive line corps under coach John Mitchell are “close,” and his feelings toward McLendon – the 30-year-old, six-year vet ahead of him on the depth chart – prove that. If McLendon does leave as a free agent, especially considering fellow veteran Cam Thomas is also a UFA and not expected back, McCullers’ role might figure to expand.
“That’s up for the coaches do decide; that’s their job,” McCullers said. “But Steve is a great player; he helped us a lot this year and however it goes for him, I hope the best for him.”
While the importance of a nose tackle seems to dwindle every year in the increasingly pass-happy NFL, the Steelers still would likely think twice about letting McLendon walk. And even if he does, they’d likely bring in another veteran to replace him. Plus, there’s plenty of speculation they’ll be targeting d-line help in the draft.
There’s no shortage of moving pieces on the Steelers’ defensive line, but no matter how it plays out, the 2016 offseason and training camp could prove to be a big opportunity for “Big Dan” McCullers.