Farewell to Arms?

Say it ain't so. Are they really breaking up that ol' gang of ours? SCI publisher Jim Wexell examines the prospects for the Steelers' defensive line.

The Steelers' level of excellence the last 10 years is paralleled by the stability of their defensive line.

In 2001 they brought Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke aboard, and in 2002 they drafted Brett Keisel. The three joined Aaron Smith to form the nucleus of what would become the NFL's best run defense the last 10 years.

But sadly they're breaking up that ol' gang of ours.

Hoke, the backup NT with the 16-2 career record as a starter, is on the verge of leaving. At 35 his contract's up and the Steelers are looking to draft his replacement and begin grooming him as Hampton's successor.

Hampton will turn 34 before the opener and is signed through the 2012 season. He's still playing at a high level and taking care of his body, so the need isn't critical and won't be addressed until the middle rounds.

Before then, the Steelers hope to address the three-down position of defensive end where the 35-year-old Smith is coming off his second consecutive injury-ravaged season. At the other end, Keisel is coming off his first Pro Bowl season but will turn 33 in September.

Ziggy Hood showed the Steelers last season that he's every bit the prospect they saw when they made him their first-round pick in 2009. But the other backup, Nick Eason, will turn 31 in May and also has an expired contract.

At DE, the first-round "5-technique" candidates for them are Cameron Jordan, Muhammad Wilkerson and Cameron Heyward.

It's possible that J.J. Watt and/or Adrian Clayborn could fall to pick 31 as well, but the Steelers consider Watt a 4-3 end and Clayborn a medical risk with a right shoulder that's virtually unusable.

Jordan (6-4.1, 287, 4.78) is the son of former Vikings tight end Steve Jordan and played the position at Cal. But with his speed, he's unlikely to last until pick 31.

Wilkerson (6-4.1, 315, 4.96) had 16½ sacks the last two years at Temple and won't turn 22 until October. A team captain with the longest arms (35¼ inches) of any interior lineman at the combine, Wilkerson impressed the Steelers there but will likely be drafted in the 20s.

That leaves Heyward (6-4.5, 294) as the 5-tech most likely to fall to pick 31. Mike Tomlin loved the "pedigree" of most players in his last draft class, and that would define the son of former Pitt star Craig "Ironhead" Heyward.

The Heyward family lived in suburban Monroeville before moving to Atlanta when Craig joined the Falcons in 1994. Cameron turned down Pitt to become a four-year starter and team captain at Ohio State. He struggled at times there with his 3-4 assignments, and is criticized by draft analysts for lacking athleticism. But the Steelers believe Heyward has the potential and the body to become a solid NFL 3-4 DE. Heyward will turn 22 next month.

Hampton nose tackle Kenrick Ellis (6-4.7, 346, 5.28) was suspended from and then kicked off South Carolina's team in the spring/summer of 2008 for alleged issues with marijuana. The Jamaica-born Ellis dominated action at the Division I-AA level and is being viewed as a defensive end by the Steelers. He impressed the Steelers at the combine, but the big question in Pittsburgh is whether Ellis can stay off the weed.

Potential mid to late-round 5-techniques include Clemson's Jarvis Jenkins (6-4, 310, 5.08) and Alabama A&M's Frank Kearse (6-4, 315, 5.3).

Jenkins, a three-year starter, recorded only 3 career sacks. He put up 225 pounds only 17 times at the combine, the low for interior defensive linemen. Kearse, in 44 career games, had 7 sacks, 5 passes defensed, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions and 1 blocked kick against I-AA competition.

The Steelers believe there are several mid to late-round nose tackles worthy of taking Hoke's spot behind Hampton. They hosted Southern Miss's Anthony Gray (5-11.3, 330, 5.16, 39 reps) and Auburn's Zach Clayton (6-2, 299, 4.85) as part of their contingent of visiting prospects. Big-name sleepers at NT include Ole Miss's Jerrell Powe (6-1.6, 335, 5.29), who struggled in his new role as an interior pass-rusher last season; and Stanford's Sione Fua (6-1.4, 308, 5.28), who was better on tape than he was at the combine.

Value board

First round – Muhammad Wilkerson, Temple.

First round – Cameron Heyward, Ohio State.

Fourth round – Anthony Gray, Southern Miss.

Sixth round – Frank Kearse, Alabama A&M.

Favorite late-round sleeper: Jerrell Powe, Ole Miss.

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