Big Dan McCullers might be the most pleasant monster you will ever meet.
The last thing the new nose tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers wants to do is frighten those of us normal-sized human beings with his 6 feet 7, 352-pound frame, so he smiles. A lot.
But the way he's looking these days, since ascending to the top of the depth chart this offseason, McCullers might make opposing centers and guards a bit nervous.
In just a few months, the big man has seemingly reapportioned his weight. He's moved much of it to the upper body, and lost a few pounds in the process. His goal, he'll tell you behind that sheepish grin, is to get down to 340, and by the looks of the streamlining that's taken place, we should book it.
* McCullers has shown in his two seasons as a reserve to Steve McLendon the ability to not only hold the point of attack, but to collapse pockets. It's just that he's been inconsistent, even sloppy, like his body used to be. And that might be one of the reasons the Steelers have looked so thoroughly this draft season at defensive tackles.
They brought most of their coaching staff, along with GM Kevin Colbert and Scout Emeritus Joe Greene, to Waco, Texas, to dine with and watch Andrew Billings.
The Steelers also attended the South Carolina State pro day -- possibly for the first time since Donnie Shell's -- to watch Javon Hargrave.
These are not the normal 5-techs to which the Steelers annually pay attention. These are for the most part high-grade prospects who man a position the local Hall of Fame beat writer called "the dodo bird of professional football."
"We are still a base 3-4 team and the nose tackle is still part of the defense," Colbert explained.
Colbert also admitted "the nose tackle gets removed ... probably 75 percent of the time."
OK, again, what gives? Why are the Steelers looking so closely at high-grade nose tackles?
Heck, even Tomlin had on his new A'Shawn Robinson look for the press conference.
"It’s not like they are completely extinct," Colbert said. "Even if some of those nose tackle types are in your defense, maybe not as starters, but as package players, subbing in and out for some of the other guys that may be starters in sub-package, they have to be able to respond to draws, because teams love to (put) in three, four wides to get those big people off the field. They drop a draw on you, and they get 15-20 yards. You are behind the eight-ball again."
Ah, so in order to find a run-stuffer with enough athleticism to play in a pass-downs sub-package, the Steelers must look for one early.
And, obviously, judging the group they've been scouting, those type of guys are out there, right?
Tomlin nodded in the affirmative while Colbert answered.
"Yes, absolutely," Colbert said. "A lot of those kids have four, five, six sacks to go along with their ability to play the run, because they are doing it in college, just what we talked about. They might be rushing the passer. They can be a nose tackle in a conventional defense, but the majority of them are playing against spread offenses and have to rush the passer at some point."
* One question, or concern, about adding a first-round defensive tackle is that the Steelers would then have three well-paid and highly talented players for two positions.
I didn't ask Tomlin directly about moving the 288-pound Cam Heyward outside to a 4-3 defensive end spot -- since drafting a first-round defensive tackle is still very much a hypothetical -- but I did ask him if there's still room for scheme evolution in spite of the fact this particular team is so close to championship contention.
"We’ve had the analogy brought up in our draft room on several occasions," Tomlin started. "If you have red paint, paint your barn red."
In other words, get the talent (the paint) and adjust your team (your barn) to it.
"Scheme fits (are) an element of the discussion," he continued. "But also quality players and acquiring quality players and being flexible in terms of what we do in an effort to bring the game to them is part of the discussion as well. It has to be."
It wouldn't be a difficult barn to paint because Heyward and the 303-pound Stephon Tuitt were both used in college as versatile pieces who were moved between tackle and end in both 3-4 and 4-3 alignments.
* A couple of days ago, in the D-line portion of SteelCityInsider.net's Draft Series '16, I cold heartedly axed a handful of star players from consideration because mathematicians throughout the internet have deemed their analytics as poor. And I -- in an exercise in elegant fiction -- put the blame on Tomlin.
Back in the real world, I asked Tomlin if he finds himself -- two years into the Steelers' use of a professional numbers-cruncher in the realm of talent acquisition -- gaining a deeper trust and appreciation of analytics.
"In certain situations it’s useful," he said. "In some situations we lean on it and it’s a part of the discussion and the equation. And in some instances, it’s not."
But has his appreciation for it increased?
"I don’t know that I’ve gained an appreciation," Tomlin said. "I know it’s often asked or discussed in these settings more now than in the past, but I don’t know that my attitude regarding it or the amount of which we use it has changed that much."
* It's not an analytic as much as it's a big, fat matzah ball hanging in front of the word interceptions, as in zero interceptions by one of the highly regarded cornerbacks in this draft, Mackensie Alexander.
His name and that number were offered up to Colbert and Tomlin on Monday for their interpretation.
"I don’t think there’s any substitute for looking at the video. The video tells you a lot, often explains a lot," Tomlin said. "It will explain the presence of statistics or the lack of statistics, the schematics and what they’re asked to do. Certain things you pick up just from watching video and it might explain some of those questions you might have."
Tomlin went on to explain that players like Alexander, who play so much man coverage, often have "their backs to the quarterback quite a bit and in underneath coverage and may not have vision to break or have visual opportunities on the ball."
"Just because a guy doesn’t have an interception," said Colbert, "doesn’t mean his receiver was the intended receiver. Maybe he just did that good of a job at covering that the quarterback looked elsewhere and chose not to throw it."
* Some fans may have taken the Alexander talk as confirmation the team is targeting the Clemson cornerback in the first round. But short corners who primarily play man coverage haven't been prioritized by the Steelers, who in recent years have targeted tall, fast zone corners such as Trae Waynes and Justin Gilbert.
Even back in 2005, when the Steelers drafted Bryant McFadden in the second round, word emerged later the team had a first-round grade on him.
A near carbon copy of McFadden should be available to them at pick 25 on Thursday night in the person of Miami CB Artie Burns.
McFadden measured 5-11 3/4, 193 coming out. He ran a 4.44 40 at his pro day.
Burns measures 5-11 7/8, 193 and ran a 4.46 40 at the NFL Combine.
McFadden had a better vertical jump of 39 1/2 (to 33), far more bench reps (23 to 7) and a better short shuttle (4.04 to 4.33), but McFadden was also two years and five months older at the point when both were worked out.
Burns has seven interceptions in 34 career games; McFadden had four in 26 games.
Both were tall, fast zone corners. McFadden was stronger; Burns younger with proven ball skills.
But while McFadden was graded as a first-rounder by the Steelers, they still were able to draft him with pick 62. The Steelers will have to ask themselves if Burns can last until pick 58.
* If a terrific strong safety prospect such as Karl Joseph is available at pick 25, perhaps the question about Burns becomes moot.
Joseph, of course, is the WVU player who was leading college football with five interceptions when he tore his ACL last October. He's a heavy hitter, a rangy centerfielder, a ballhawk, a blitzer, a leader and a student of the game. He would follow nicely in the Steelers' grand tradition of dynamic strong safeties; however, he may miss time with the injury.
We would have to go back to, again, the 2005 draft for the last time the Steelers drafted a player who couldn't work out prior to the draft due to injury. But that year they put the selection of McFadden on hold to draft Heath Miller, who was coming off hernia surgery and wasn't expected to be ready until the start of training camp. That's Joseph's target date as well.
"There will be risk involved," said Colbert. "But part of that falls on our evaluation and part of that will fall on the doctors’ medical evaluation, as to whether or not they think they can make it back. And we just have to put those two together."
It worked with Miller. And of course the Steelers still got their tall, fast, zone corner at pick 62.
* This will be the 10th draft in which Tomlin and Colbert have worked together. What have they learned?
"When we’ve missed on picks," Colbert said, "it’s usually not a physical talent. We talk about hearts and smarts all the time and those have been the areas. If we trace ourselves back to where we’ve made mistakes, it’s been in those two areas. And they’re the two hardest areas to evaluate, because I can’t put a clock to it."
* All right, between the two of them, who's in charge?
"It’s our pick," Colbert said. "Again, you may think we agree all the time, and that’s not true. We can’t agree all the time. We have different opinions. But collectively, we spend literally a month and probably a month before that gathering the information and a month separating the information. We have a lot of discussions. We have disagreements, but when we talk it through, talk it through with the room, talk it through with our scouts, talk it through with our coaches, talk it through with our owners, we’ll come together and that will be it. It’s really a collective pick. That’s as true as it can get."
"I think the nail-biting decision that you imagine," said Tomlin, "and the discussion that you imagine while on the clock, really doesn’t occur in that manner. It occurs in a variety of forms over the course of several months in preparation, so there isn’t the angst or the discussions that you would imagine when we are quote unquote on the clock."
What's Kevin like when he shows angst?
"He’s on fire right now," Tomlin joked about his easygoing partner. "You guys have to understand, and you have to know Kevin. He’s on fire right now."null