Steelers Draft Series: Defensive line

A new chapter in Jim Wexell's draft series on the Pittsburgh Steelers' options will run every other day throughout the three weeks leading up to the draft. Today: The defensive line.

When Aaron Smith turns 32 on Saturday, the Steelers will wish him a happy birthday, and then they'll wish that time would stop moving so quickly.

The Steelers learned last season how much Smith means to them when he missed 6.9 games with two different injuries.

With their left defensive end in the lineup, the Steelers allowed 3.4 yards per carry. With Smith out of the lineup, they allowed 4.8 yards per carry. Altogether, the Steelers allowed 4.0 yards per carry, their highest yield since 2000.

It's been a team strength for so long that it's been taken for granted. But Mike Tomlin assured the public that's no longer the case at his end-of-season press conference.

"We need to strengthen ourself in our lines," Tomlin said. "We need some young, big people."

The Steelers have two nose tackles with Casey Hampton (31 on opening day) and Chris Hoke (just turned 32), but defensive ends Smith and Brett Keisel (30 on Sept. 19) need backups.

Travis Kirschke played his best game in the playoffs, but will turn 34 on Sept. 6. Nick Eason was a disappointment and last year's fourth-rounder, Ryan McBean, injured his foot this offseason. The Steelers need to groom another young lineman regardless of McBean's prognosis.

The candidates? Well, Philip Merling fits the mold, but some character issues have developed of late that must be checked out. Calais Campbell, the 6-8, 290-pounder, had a poor senior season. Kentwan Balmer, the 3-4 end at North Carolina, ran a 5.31 40 at his pro day, which is too slow for a first-round end.

Here's what's Tom Marino said about the one player, Merling, who would fit in the first round.

"Merling's not a very strong guy," he said. "But I do agree that he's a 3-4 end. I think that's what he'll eventually be. They reduce him sometimes in the nickel and he comes from the inside. He's a good-looking kid and will probably be there [pick 23] because of some immaturity issues. He didn't have a great season, in my mind, but there's a lot to like there."

The Steelers prefer to find their defensive ends later in the draft and wire them into their system at an early age. The highest-ranked defensive end to visit the South Side this spring was Maryland's Dre Moore (6-4, 305, 4.91). The others were Red Bryant (6-4, 313, 4.88) of Texas A&M, Kendall Langford (6-5½, 287, 5.01) of Hampton, Eric Foster (6-1, 271, 5.) of Rutgers, and Jason Jones (6-5, 273, 4.8) of Eastern Michigan. The only nose tackle to visit the South Side was Keilen Dykes (6-3½, 294, 5.1) of West Virginia.

Of that group, Langford and Jones best fit the Steelers' 3-4 prototype.

"Langford's a good player and he is a prototypical 3-4 end," Marino said. "But he has little feet and little hands. That bothers me a bit."

Marino rates the 22-year-old Langford as a sixth-round pick, but it's unlikely the Steelers would be able to wait until the fifth round to grab him.

"The guy I like in that area of the draft is William Hayes," Marino said of the 6-3, 272-pounder from Winston-Salem State. Hayes ran a 4.71 at his pro day.

"He can run and he's a man," Marino said. "He's really put together, a great looking athlete."

Foster is another late-round possibility. Marino compares him to a player he scouted 12 years ago.

"He's La'Roi Glover," Marino said of the former fifth-round pick who's still playing. "Foster needs to get stronger, but I love his competitiveness and effort."

Value Board

3rd Round – Dre Moore, Maryland.

4th Round – Kendall Langford, Hampton; Red Bryant, Texas A&M.

5th Round – Eric Foster, Rutgers; Jason Jones, Eastern Michigan.

6th Round – Keilen Dykes, West Virginia; William Hayes, Winston Salem State.

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