Re-examining the Courtship of Steve McLendon
by Mike Conklin
November 21, 2013
The Packers are a team of homegrown talent. Nothing illustrated that more than the television graphic a few weeks ago that highlighted the fact that 50 of the 53 players on Green Bay's roster have never played a game for another team.
Perhaps that is why it came as somewhat of a surprise last offseason when Ted Thompson and the Packers reportedly made overtures to sign Steelers defensive lineman Steve McLendon to an offer sheet. McLendon was a restricted free agent, and the Packers thought enough of him to bring him to Lambeau Field for a visit.
The very next day, the Steelers signed McLendon to a three year, $7.25 million deal. It is unclear whether McClendon was seriously considering Green Bay or just using the Packers for leverage to get more money from his own team. Whatever the case, the fact remains that the Packers actually entertained a player from another team for a free agent visit, and that was noteworthy in and of itself.
When these events took place back in April, the Packers had no idea whether or not Johnny Jolly would be a viable option again. As it turns out, the defensive line became one of the deepest positions on the team when the roster cuts were made in September. The Packers chose to keep seven at that position, and most weeks at least one of those players has remained on the inactive list on game day.
The position may not remain so deep in the future, however. B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly, and C.J. Wilson are all unrestricted free agents after this season. The only players currently under contract for next year are Mike Daniels and unproven rookies Datone Jones and Josh Boyd.
Taking that into consideration, perhaps it should not have come as such a surprise that the Packers were trying to pick up another defensive lineman for a reasonable price as thought they may be able to do with McLendon. Originally undrafted in 2009, he spent most of that year on and off the Steelers practice squad. He ended up making the team for good in 2010 but served a backup role to one of the best nose tackles in the league, Casey Hampton.
The Steelers chose not to re-sign the 35-year old Hampton this offseason, and at that point they had few options other than McLendon. That may be why the Steelers ended up signing him to a fairly lucrative contract just one day after his visit with the Packers, despite the fact he had only played sparingly his first three seasons.
As the season has played out thus far, although the Packers have one of the deeper defensive lines in the league they have had their share of struggles in recent weeks. B.J. Raji has shown flashes of dominance at times, but had quiet games the last two contests. Ryan Pickett is not playing at full strength as he battles a lingering knee injury. Johnny Jolly has been in and out of the lineup the last two weeks with a groin injury of his own. The Packers boasted one of the league's better run defenses the first third of the season, but have had a hard time getting off the field in the past month.
How has McLendon fared in his first season as a starter? The reviews are generally positive. Individually, he has received a substantially better grade from Pro Football Focus than Pickett, Jolly, or Raji. His position coach seems happy with his progress as well.
"Steve is still a young guy. He's learning how to play," said John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach since 1994.
"Right now I'm really pleased where he's at, and he's going to be a good football player."
As a team, however, the Steelers are struggling. They rank 26th in rush defense, allowing 125 yards per game. It would be unfair to place the blame squarely on McLendon's shoulders, but as he tries to fill the role of five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton there have undoubtedly been some growing pains.
Would McLendon be an important part of the Packers defensive line rotation had the Packers made a more lucrative offer and signed him? Most likely. At 320 pounds, he offers run-stopping ability up front that would have come in useful during some recent defensive efforts, particularly in the fourth quarter. He also would have offered them more flexibility next offseason, as Raji's contract demands may prove too much for the Packers and Ryan Pickett will turn 35 early next season.
On the other hand, the question remains whether the Packers would have been able to keep Johnny Jolly in that scenario. Teammates have spoken almost in unison about the importance of Jolly's leadership role on the team this season.
It is very unusual that restricted free agents change teams in the NFL. By courting McLendon last April, the Packers proved they were willing to think outside the box as they tried to fill perceived needs on the defensive line. In the coming months they will explore these options and more, as restocking the defensive line will likely be one of the biggest priorities moving forward.
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