Next in a series that looks at every position on offense and defense with training camp approaching, we take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive ends.
Returning starter: Cameron Heyward. The former first-round draft pick broke through in his third NFL season. Heyward, who took over at left defensive end in the fifth game of the season for Ziggy Hood, led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures. He also established himself as one of the young players that the Steelers will build around on defense.
New faces: Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt, Josh Mauro and Ethan Hemer. Thomas, who started 10 games at nose tackle for the San Diego Chargers last season, signed a two-year, $4 million contract with the Steelers in March. The Steelers drafted Tuitt in the second round and added Mauro and Hemer as undrafted rookie free agents.
On the bubble: Brian Arnfelt. The undrafted free agent spent most of 2013 on the practice squad before receiving a late-season promotion. The Northwestern product played in two games and has a good chance of making the 53-man roster. Arnfelt, however, could become part of a numbers crunch if the Steelers bring back Brett Keisel for one more season.
By the numbers: Heyward played 800 snaps last season. Arnfelt was the only other defensive end on the roster to get any snaps for the Steelers last season, and he was in for just two plays.
Did you know: The only time Tuitt played at Heinz Field he didn’t finish the game because of an ejection. Tuitt was thrown out of Notre Dame’s 28-21 loss at Pitt last season after officials ruled he had targeted Carolina Panthers quarterback Tom Savage with an above-the-shoulder hit on the first play of the second quarter. The controversial call was later ruled a correct one by the ACC’s head of officiating.
Quotable: “Some fans in San Diego gave me that when I first had Twitter and I was playing around with them and they called me ‘Baby Zilla.’ I stuck with it ever since.” – the 6-foot=4, 330-pound Thomas on how he got his nickname.
Outlook: Heyward is one of the Steelers’ best defensive players, and he gives them a strong inside rusher when they go to their nickel defense. Thomas is more ideally suited to swing between defensive end and nose tackle, the role that Al Woods filled last season. He is a stopgap at defensive end until Tuitt is ready to start. Keisel also becomes a part of the rotation at the defensive end spot opposite Heyward if the Steelers re-sign the 12th-year veteran.