Another in a position-by-position series examining the Steelers' roster in advance of the start of free agency:
(Free Agent Scorecard at the position: 3 unrestricted free agents – Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, Al Woods)
There once was an undrafted rookie at this position who worked his way onto the roster and ended up having an 11-year career that included three trips to the Super Bowl and a couple of rings. His name was Chris Hoke, and Arnfelt has been described as having a comparable work ethic with perhaps a bit more raw talent. He was promoted from the practice squad for the final three games of the regular season and will get an opportunity to state his case for a full-time roster spot beginning with the offseason program.
In the preseason fight with Alameda Ta'amu for the backup nose tackle role, Fangupo was a decisive winner but then was inactive for all but four games. Joel Steed grew into a Pro Bowl nose tackle for the Steelers in the 1990s, but as a rookie he was inactive for the final five regular season games plus the playoffs. Fangupo established himself as better than Ta'amu, but where does he go from there?
This is a player around whom the Steelers can build their next generation of defense. His production certainly supports that – 63 tackles, tied for second on the team with five sacks, a team-best 31 pressures, second on the team among non-defensive backs with five passes defensed. But even though he won't be 25 until May, Heyward also has become a presence for this defense, and when the Steelers have been great on that side of the ball they have had those kinds of players. If Heyward improves as much heading in 2014 as he did heading into 2013, the Steelers will have the makings of a dynamic 3-4 defensive lineman.
An unrestricted free agent in March, Hood was mis-cast for the role the team envisioned for him when he was drafted on the first round in 2009, but that doesn't necessarily mean he didn't contribute in 2013 or won't in 2014 and beyond. Each side must evaluate its expectations, but right now it seems as though both sides would be better off sticking together than parting ways.
He was born to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the relationship has been mutually beneficial for over a decade. The thing is though, Keisel is 35 and on track to be an unrestricted free agent come March, and the Steelers have to get younger on defense. His 38 tackles were third among the team's defensive linemen, and his four sacks and 26 pressures are representative stats for a 3-4 end. Over the past six seasons, including 2013, Keisel missed 18 games due to injury. Those are some of the pertinent facts, and a decision on his future with the team cannot be made easily.
It didn't take long to determine that he isn't another Casey Hampton, but that shouldn't matter if the subject is style of play. The more significant issue to be resolved is whether McLendon is a nose tackle, or might be better, as was Kimo von Oelhoffen, as an end in Dick LeBeau's 3-4. The fact the team signed him to an extension one calendar year ago while he was a restricted free agent indicates he is valued as a player. From there, it's a matter of working out the details.
A knee injury during training camp landed him on IR for his rookie season, but the Steelers have had success in the past when they spent late-round draft picks on raw defensive linemen who can run. They also have missed in the past when they spent late-round draft picks on raw defensive linemen who can run. Into which category will Williams fall? To be determined.
It took some time, and some back-and-forth on other teams' rosters and practice squads, but Woods and the Steelers finally got to spend some uninterrupted time together in 2012 and 2013. The results were promising, with Woods developing some position flexibility to go along with decent pass-rushing skills for the position – two sacks and five pressures in 2013. But with the potential for unrestricted free agency in March, Woods' status for 2014 and beyond is up in the air.