"Position Battles" is a new feature column which will explore upcoming training camp battles from an individual player perspective. Each article will aim to make a case for, and against, a player making the roster based on the spots available at their position.
An incredibly large athlete who is thought of as a gentle giant, Dan McCullers was drafted in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and enters his fourth, and potentially final, season in Pittsburgh.
There are a number of factors working against McCullers. First is the Steelers progression from playing their traditional 3-4 base defense to more defensive back heavy sub packages. Way back when Casey Hampton stuffed the middle of the line and ate up blockers. The thought that was with McCullers' natural frame (he's 6' 7", 348 lbs.) he could do the same as the former Steeler.
However, with a traditional nose tackle sitting out 2/3 of the game at times, McCullers had a hard time finding his footing. He may have had an opportunity when the Steelers passed on re-signing DT Steve McLendon last offseason, but the franchise drafted the versatile Javon Hargrave in the third round. Hargrave won the starting nose tackle job during training camp, becoming the first Steelers rookie start on the defensive line in over twenty years.
McCullers had an opportunity to prove his value when Hargrave was sidelined with an injury toward the end of the 2016 season. "Big Dan" received his first career start against the Buffalo Bills, but failed to register a single statistic while playing 35% of the defensive plays.
A week later, Hargrave would return but McCullers would still receive some playing time throughout the end of the season. His season-high for playing time would come against the Cleveland Browns in Week 17 when the Steelers staff sat a number of starters to rest them for the playoffs. Dan made the most of his time, accumulated three of his ten tackles on the season and his lone sack in that game.
The heat on McCullers' hot seat was turned up again this offseason when the Steelers signed former Jacksonville first-round pick Tyson Alualu in free agency. Like Hargrave, Alualu can play all techniques along the line, which spells trouble for McCullers job safety.
Add in an impressive showing by DT Letterius Walton during Cam Heyward's injury sabbatical and some promise shown by promoting practice squad standout Johnny Maxey, and roster spots start to become scarce. Finding a fit for a true nose tackle, who isn't as versatile as his peers, and cannot be relied upon to play every down in today's pass-heavy NFL may prove to be too difficult.