LATROBE, Pa. — Tyson Alualu has 87 career starts and signed a two-year, $6 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers in March as he enters his eighth NFL season.
He’s far from a draft bust.
But being a top-10 pick engenders a burden that Alualu — who starred at Cal and was selected 10th overall by Jacksonville in 2010 — often felt weighing down his 300-pound frame.
Those early years when Alualu was failing to rack up sack numbers? That was no joke, he says.
But managing the stress from the perception that you’re a bad draft pick actually helped fuel Alualu’s longevity, despite a lengthy adjustment.
“It probably did turn into stress, hearing people say he’s not playing how he should play as a top-10 pick,” Alualu told ESPN. “A lot of people don’t understand what you do go through, injuries, things that you face. It was tough. You have to stay true to who you are.”
Alualu is at peace with his career knowing he fought to stay on the field and keep himself valuable. Alualu never became a sack master (16.5 QB takedowns in seven years), but he’s played in all but two games and is widely considered underappreciated for his run-stopping contributions in Jacksonville, where he played as an end and tackle.
Now positioned as a key reserve on a deep Steelers defensive line, Alualu savors the chance to stick with a winner.
He no longer senses concerns from fans over whether he’ll play like his draft status suggests he should. But those criticisms never really have left him, either. He just learned to spin them positively, relying on his family for positivity until he figured out his NFL identity.
“What I’ve learned, looking back, is you can’t let those pressures turn into stress,” Alualu said. “It can definitely get to you if you start listening to other people’s opinions. You’ve got to learn to block out the noise and make the most of your opportunities. The good ones know how to use it to their advantage and just kind of ball out.”
Alualu admits to pressing early in his career, in part because of difficulties adjusting to coaching.
Then-defensive line coach Joe Cullen “engrained one move in my head,” he said. Alualu repped that move hundreds of times until he felt more mechanical than instinctual.
“For me, I was always good on reaction,” Alualu said. “They kind of took that away from me. I’m not blaming him, he was a good coach. But the way I took it was wrong. Looking back, I should have just continued to play like what got me to be a top pick instead of trying to please and do it his way.”
Alualu consulted a few NFL veterans about the balance between absorbing coaching and accentuating your strengths. Alualu believes he’s gotten better as a result.
Alualu welcomes hard coaching from Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell. He feels the chance to get creative with his pass-rush moves while staying true to the team’s 3-4 system.
Alualu isn’t expected to play like a top pick here. The Steelers have Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave for that. Alualu is tasked with steady contribution.
But part of him is still fighting the perception battle, which still gives him that extra push off the line of scrimmage.
“You want to prove other people wrong that think you were a bad pick,” Alualu said.