<
>

Steelers' position outlook: DE

PITTSBURGH -- This is the eighth in a series in which I will examine every position relative to the 2013 season – and look take a look ahead.

DEFENSIVE ENDS

2014 free agents: Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel and Al Woods.

The good: Cameron Heyward finished the season as arguably the Steelers’ best defensive player after opening it as a part-time player. Heyward, who didn’t become a starter until the fifth game of the season, led the Steelers with 31 quarterback hurries, and he provided a consistent interior pass rush while also holding up well against the run. He emerged as a cornerstone of the Steelers’ defense, something they desperately needed, and a player who can anchor the line in the coming seasons. Keisel and Hood had their moments and Woods showed that he can help the defense at end and nose tackle after receiving the first extensive playing time of his career.

The bad: Keisel missed four games and barely played in another because of a nagging foot injury. Hood lost his starting job to Heyward, and he has been more workmanlike than anything in five seasons. The Steelers were expecting more out of their 2009 first-round draft pick, and they have to decide how much of a push they want to make toward re-signing him.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Heyward’s cap hit will be $2.133 million, making him a bargain. The Steelers control Heyward’s rights for two more years so they have plenty of time to sign him to a new deal. They have decisions to make regarding Hood, Keisel and Woods. My guess is two of those players returning in 2014 with Woods being one of them and either Hood or Keisel also returning. Keisel said he believes he still has a couple of good years left in him but he would have to accept a drastic pay cut for the Steelers to consider bringing him back.

Draft priority: High. The Steelers need to draft a defensive end they can develop and pair opposite Heyward, especially if they don’t think Hood can be that player. ESPN Insider Matt Williamson, a former NFL scout, said the Steelers’ need at defensive end is such that addressing it should be one of their top priorities. Williamson doesn’t think the Steelers will use their first-round pick on an end only because there isn’t a good match for them at No. 15 overall.