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Steelers DT Daniel McCullers in a rush to prove himself

Chris Adamski
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers defensive tackle Daniel McCullers goes through drills during minicamp June 14, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers defensive tackle Daniel McCullers goes through drills during mini camp June 14, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Daniel McCullers shed some pounds over the past offseason. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t feeling the weight of pressure applied by his position coach.

The Steelers’ big defensive tackle is entering his fourth pro season without any guarantees of a roster spot after largely failing to assert himself since being drafted in 2014.

“Dan McCullers, he’s got to grow up,” Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell in a video posted on the team’s official website. “It’s time to make a move right now. This is going to be his fourth year. And usually in this league, after about four years, you have got to make a move. Or, either, you move somewhere else.”

That “somewhere else” could be a destination after the coming season, when McCullers’ contract expires. Or it could be as early as this fall should he fail to secure a spot on the 53-man roster during training camp.

That would appear to be far from a sure thing for the 352-pound McCullers after he was bypassed for first-team reps during organized team activities and minicamp in favor of L.T. Walton, according to multiple Steelers defensive linemen. Walton is, by trade, an end. The gig with the first-teamers was open because of an injury to starter Javon Hargrave.

“We’ve got a deep, deep D-line,” McCullers said. “A lot of guys who can play, run around, a lot of good guys. So I am gonna try to do my best to stand out … All the reps that you can get, the better. It doesn’t matter if it’s first-team or second-team or third-team. You just want to prove yourself and show the coaches you can play.”

McCullers hasn’t done that with much regularity over three seasons since being a sixth-round pick out of Tennessee.

He has played in 37 of the Steelers’ 48 games in that time, starting two. He’s appeared in 11.2 percent of the defensive snaps.

McCullers appeared only in roughly one-seventh of their defensive snaps during this past postseason (25 in three games).

Part of that is McCullers’ pure position — nose tackle — is being rendered increasingly obsolete in today’s NFL. But part of it also is McCullers’ perceived lack of development and his lack of versatility to be trusted in the nickel.

That was part of McCullers’ motivation to lose some weight this offseason.

He said earlier this month he was down 8 pounds from last season and intended to drop another 10 before reporting to St. Vincent for training camp.

“In the nickel, you have got to be able to run and move (for) the quickness and slanting, the blitzing we do,” McCullers said. “So you have to be in good shape.”

Listed at 6-foot-7 and weighing, for much of his college and pro career, significantly more than the 352 he is listed at, McCullers constantly is fighting the label that he’s merely “a big body” who at best can clog up space but lacks ability to do much else.

As the league — and the Steelers defense — continue to evolve into more pass-first and speed-reliant incarnations, that’s McCullers’ challenge.

“The big thing is be big — but also show you can move, be agile, make plays for the team and help them out,” he said.

“I have been a ‘nose’ all four years. But hopefully I can show my pass-rush moves and my little spin. I’m working on a little spin I can use. I’m gonna try to add that to it. So hopefully I can put that on film and put it out there so they can use me in that nickel situation.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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