Free Agency 2003: Part IV – Defensive Line

While they mostly toil without recognition, the Steelers' defensive line is a very important part of what they do. If the front three aren't performing well, the team's linebackers are going to be in for a long, long day.

In the past two seasons, the Steelers have gotten excellent play out of the starting trio of Kimo von Oelhoffen and Aaron Smith at end, and Casey Hampton at nose tackle. With Smith and Hampton both still in their early 20's, and promising Rodney Bailey and Brett Keisel working as backup defensive ends, the team is solidly set with four talented young defensive linemen.

But von Oelhoffen, a rugged leader of the team's defense, is on the wrong side of 30 and played through shoulder and calf injuries last season. Also, the team could use an upgrade over Kendrick Clancy, a former third-round draft choice who has played very little, as Hampton's backup.

One option as a backup to Hampton would be von Oelhoffen, who played nose tackle for the team in 2000. But the Steelers would want to go that route again only as a last resort. However, finding a backup nose tackle in NFL free agency is sort of like finding good music at Heinz Field.

This year's free agent crop of defensive linemen is a tough crew to gauge, both because of age and injury concerns and because the Steelers ask their defensive linemen to play differently than most teams in the league.

Green Bay's Vonnie Holliday will be the most coveted defensive line stud this offseason. The 6-5, 290-pounder could fit into any team's defense and has 32 career sacks in 63 career starts. He'll be way out of the Steelers' price range.

If the Steelers are in the market for another defensive lineman, they'll be bargain searching. And there are going to be some bargains out there.

Three of those would be New Orleans' Willie Whitehead, Tennessee's John Thornton, and San Diego's Adrian Dingle.

The 6-3, 285-pound Whitehead has been a spot starter for the Saints and is a solid run stopper. He's racked up an impressive 17.5 sacks in 58 career games, but that was in a system that asks its defensive linemen to do more upfield rushing than the Steelers do, so how he projects into Pittsburgh's system is questionable.

Thornton is a more interesting prospect because of his versatility. The 6-2, 300-pound Thornton has started games at both defensive tackle and end for the Titans and could give the Steelers some added flexibility.

The 25 year old Dingle is the youngest and smallest of the aforementioned group. At 6-3, 272 pounds, he would have to add some weight to play for the Steelers, but that wouldn't be a huge problem.

Dingle seems to be coming into his own as a player and had four of his 7.5 career sacks in 2002 under head coach Marty Schottenheimer.

Dale Lolley

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