It’s been quite the offseason for retirements this year as the NFL has seen several noteworthy players hang up their cleats. Players such as Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Whitworth, Malcolm Jenkins, Frank Gore and Ali Marpet have all played their final seasons. On Thursday, the Steelers were hit again with another retirement of a star player as eight-year veteran defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt called it quits.
Tuitt, a former second round pick back in 2014, enjoyed an outstanding career and was one of the best players on one of the best defenses in the NFL throughout his time in Pittsburgh. An outstanding athlete with size, explosiveness and power, Tuitt was a force to be reckoned with as an interior rusher and was also stout against the run as long as he wasn’t facing double teams. Now, when a player the caliber of Tuitt retires it normally would be a massive blow to the football team. In this case, the Steelers are very well prepared.
Tuitt missed the 2021 season as he simultaneously dealt with the tragic loss of his brother, who died in a hit-and-run car crash, and knee surgery. Heading into the 2022 offseason, Tuitt’s status with the team was unclear and it is very reasonable to assume that the Steelers saw his retirement coming. Pittsburgh had already been living in a world without Tuitt, as they did in 2021, therefore they’ve essentially had the luxury of being able to plan for his potential retirement. So, while the loss of Tuitt does sting because he is such a dominant player while on the field, the Steelers are very well equipped for his departure.
One player who directly benefits from Tuitt’s abrupt retirement is the Steelers third round pick, DeMarvin Leal. Leal was a polarizing prospect throughout the draft process but one who presents a ton of upside. Entering his junior season, Leal was widely viewed as a top-10 prospect. He was very disruptive as a sophomore showing flashes of dominant play with an explosive first step, powerful hands and an ability to play up and down the defensive line. Evaluators were bought in on this 6’4 290-pound defensive lineman and just needed to see him put another season on tape. Unfortunately for Leal, his junior season left a bit to be desired. While he was extremely productive from a pass rushing standpoint having recorded 8.5 sacks, he was highly disappointing in the run game. He showed very little ability to anchor, get off blocks and his effort was often times in question. His lack of consistency made him fall on draft weekend, but his raw athleticism and upside still remain.
Speaking to the media Thursday, Leal gave his thoughts on Tuitt’s retirement.
“It’s a sad situation when it comes to Tuitt,” Leal said. “I could have gotten some wisdom and knowledge from him. Not having that opportunity to learn from him sucks, but at the same time it gives me an opportunity to learn stuff and have more of a relationship with the older guys. It’s about learning quickly.”
The opportunity for year one production is right in front of Leal. Leal’s disruptive potential playing next to stars Cameron Hayward and T.J. Watt is simply unquestionable and the fact of the matter is if any team can bring out the best in Leal, it’s likely Head Coach Mike Tomlin and the Steelers organization. Now, even without Tuitt, Leal will still be facing stiff competition for snaps.
Defensive tackle Chris Wormley started 14 games in the absence of Tuitt in 2021 and enjoyed career highs in sacks, tackles and tackles for loss. He is a solid veteran along the Steelers defensive line but even he isn’t the athlete that Leal is. The other player who presents an obstacle for Leal is Isaiah Loudermilk, a fifth-round pick back in 2021. Loudermilk played well in a reserve role for the Steelers as a rookie and possess excellent size and power for the position. While lacking in pass rush upside, Loudermilk is an outstanding run defender and will certainly play a factor in this rotation.
It’s rare for interior defensive lineman to make an impact as a rookie. It takes time for players at that position to get used to the power and quickness that interior offensive lineman in the NFL possess and additionally they need to be able to learn how to play fast while also understanding their assignment. Leal has a very real chance to be an exception. He has the physical talent, in the right system, and has a reasonable chance to beat out his competition. With his upside and potential in this defense, if I am a Steeler fan, I am rooting to see Leal early and often in 2022.
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