By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
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In April, the Steelers selected a defensive tackle by the name of Javon Hargrave from South Carolina State. When the Steelers made him their 3rd-round pick, a lot of Steelers Nation said the same thing.
“Who? From where?”
Fast-forward 4 months and Javon Hargrave is no longer a no-name prospect from a small Division I program. However, the road to this point was not easy by any means. Hargrave began his football career as a running back and tight end until middle school when he switched to the defensive line, where he found it easy to beat opposing offensive linemen. As a high school player, Hargrave attracted the attention of some Division I schools but because of low test scores, he was forced to attend South Carolina State, an FCS school. His low test scores ultimately didn’t impact his ability to be a solid student, finishing his time at South Carolina State with a 3.0 GPA.
Throughout his football career, Hargrave has almost inherited the underdog role due to his FCS upbringing and his “smaller” stature. At only 6’2″ and 305 pounds, Hargrave is the smallest defensive lineman on the Steelers roster. Even though he has unconventional height for a defensive lineman, he has found ways to use it to his advantage, namely his elite get-off from his stance and his ability to use his smaller height to get under opposing offensive linemen that might tower over him. Leverage is key in the trenches and the low-man almost always wins. For Hargrave, that concept comes easily.
Now that training camp has concluded and the preseason is almost complete, the question is not if Hargrave’s competition in college was lacking, but rather how quickly will he see the field and should he have gone much higher than the end of the 3rd-round? Throughout the preseason, Hargrave has demonstrated all of the characteristics that made him such an exciting, yet unknown, prospect coming out of college. For a player as compact as he is, Hargrave has fantastic footwork and consistently holds the point of attack, especially against one-on-one matchups. While his ability as a blocker one-on-one is solid, he showed some weakness early on in training camp against double teams, but has progressed each week in his ability to defend against them. In addition to his quick feet and stout body, Hargrave possesses tremendous upside as a pass-rusher and this was on full display against the Saints, where Hargrave carried out a perfectly orchestrated swim move to beat Saints center Jack Allen one-on-one and quickly sacked the quarterback before he knew what hit him. Many analysts criticized Hargrave’s hand usage in college but so far with the Steelers, he has shown fantastic use of his hands, which goes great with his quick get-off and his ability to beat an offensive lineman out of his stance.
Hargrave has shown the ability to be highly position versatile, which is something that the Steelers valued with him during the draft process. So far with the Steelers, he has played in a 0-technique (head-up on the center), a 1-technique (over the shoulder of the center), and a 3-technique (over the outside shoulder of the guard). This versatility and success at each alignment gives the Steelers many options, which is great considering their usage of sub-packages on defense. When compared to Hargrave, Daniel McCullers (Hargrave’s primary position competition) lacks the versatility, pad level, get-off, and hustle that his counterpart has, which brings me to an extremely important aspect of Hargrave’s game that many people are not noticing: his hustle. In college, his hustle was sometimes lacking, which could be due to coaching, conditioning, etc. However, Hargrave has shown time and time again this preseason that he is willing to give 200% on every play that he is on the field which is exactly the type of football that defensive line coach John Mitchell preaches day in and day out. This has been evident especially over the past two games against the Eagles and the Saints. When it appeared that Hargrave was clearly out of the play, that didn’t prevent him from giving the extra effort and attempting to adjust and chase the play down to put himself in a position to make the tackle. This trait has been something that has made former and current Steelers players truly great. McCullers, on the other hand, has been widely criticized during his time as a Steeler for his lack of consistent hustle, something that is necessary to have to be a part of the Steelers’ defense.
Many people don’t expect Hargrave to be a 3-down player to start out as a rookie but if the game against the Saints was any indication, Hargrave could be in for much more playing time than originally expected. His play and physical composition has drawn some comparisons to some pretty substantial company over the past few weeks: Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald. Atkins and Donald are two of the NFL’s top defensive tackles (if not THE best two defensive tackles) who both have the same physical characteristics and playing style that we have seen from Hargrave thus far. If Hargrave can become even half of the player that those two stars are, it will be absolutely huge for the Steelers’ defense. While the regular season hasn’t started yet, it is fair to believe that Hargrave is in for some solid playing time to start the season over Daniel McCullers. McCullers isn’t a bad player, but Hargrave’s potential as a run-stopper and pass-rusher is too much to pass up on at this point. If he continues to improve as he has this preseason, the sky is the limit for the South Carolina product.