Where the position stands now:
This is where things may start getting a little iffy, at least as far as proven talent. But on the bright side there are so many actual players now in this unit that the odds of finding five or six that can play next season is not an impossibility.
Let's start at tackle first since that will have a big turnover with Aaron Donald, one of the best Pitt players ever, moving on to the NFL. Paul Chryst and Matt House tends to have a more athletic and quick tackle paired with a bigger, more nose tackle type interior lineman. In fact, Pitt calls the position nose tackle even though it's a 4-3 defense. Donald was the quicker, smaller tackle, needless to say. His most likely replacement will be 6'2" 285 pound Darryl Render, who has shown flashes of potential in his first two seasons. I can see him becoming a pretty good player now that he's a seasoned junior, and the defense desperately needs him to make that step. Behind him should be promising redshirt freshman Justin Moody, who at 6'2" and 275 pounds practiced very well in his first season. Fifth year senior LaQuentin Smith is a former linebacker and defensive end, who finally moved to tackle, and he may factor in here as well, though he has contributed almost nothing in his career thus far. I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't even come back.
Then comes the big nose tackles, and they are definitely big. The two players that will mostly likely battle it out for the starting position are 6'0" 305 junior bowling ball Khaynin Mosley-Smith, and 6'3" 330 pound redshirt freshman Tyrique Jarrett. Mosley-Smith played in every game two seasons ago but was suspended for the entire season last year. If he comes back, he may be the favorite to start. Like Mosley-Smith, Jarrett is big, but can move. And like Render, how much they develop is huge.
After them, the drop-off is pretty big. Redshirt freshman Jeremy Taleni is 6'2" 300 pounds, and true freshmen Connor Dintino and Mike Herndon are 6'4" 300, and 6'4" 320, respectively. Dintino is a talented wrestler who moves very well, and Herndon moves well enough that he played middle linebacker in high school. Since Dintino and Herndon would be better off with a redshirt so if one of these are forced into action it will probably be Taleni.
At end, things are just as questionable, even though returning senior starters Bryan Murphy and David Durham return. In fact, their return is one of the reasons why the position is questionable. Murphy has had times in his career where it looked like he may be better than average, but there weren't many of those times. Murphy, a former Ohio State fullback, did practically nothing in his first season as a starter. The three returnees who didn't start most of the season are actually more talented, and therefore are Pitt's best hope to make this group productive. Those three are 6'3" 250 pound sophomore Shakir Soto, 6'0" 230 pound junior Ejuan Price, and 6'4" 255 pound junior Devin Cook. Soto didn't embarrass himself as a true freshman, and an especially young true freshman at that. He could be due for a significant jump in his sophomore season. Price and Cook are returning from season ending injuries. Price has had a history of injuries for his entire career. He is not big, but he has a lot of talent, especially when rushing the quarterback. If he comes back healthy he should help. The same goes with Cook, who has shown in the past that he can get into the backfield, but he's returning from a torn ACL.
That's five veterans so the underclassmen may have a hard time breaking into that top group. One that has a real chance next season is 6'5" 250 pound redshirt freshman Luke Maclean, who already has the size to go with good athleticism. He could eventually be a good one. True freshmen Rori Blair, Shane Roy, and Hez Trehan have redshirts written all over them. Trehan lacks explosiveness but is already 6'4" and 250 pounds. I suspect that he may move inside eventually. Blair has some athletic skills but he's raw. Roy has good length at 6'5", but he's also currently too light at 220 pounds. I'm not as high on him as some of the fans because he lacks explosion and quickness, in my opinion, but he could eventually get big and strong enough to be a strong side end, or even put on a lot of weight and be a defensive tackle years down the road.
The wildcard here is potential star running back James Conner. Not only will he probably be the best running back on the roster, but he may also be the best defensive end on the roster. Chryst plans on using him some at end, but hopefully the returnees will improve enough so that using him there won't be necessary.
So far the Panthers have offered six tackles, and four of them are elite prospects that Pitt has no chance at. Those four are Breiden Fehoko of Farrington HS (Honolulu, HI), Darvin Taylor of Thomas Dale HS (Chester, VA), Christian Wilkins of Suffield (CT) Academy, and Adam McLean of Quince Orchard HS (North Potomac, MD). Two others are pretty good sleepers that Pitt had a better chance at a few weeks ago. One, 6'5" 270 pound Drayton Carlberg of De La Salle HS (Minneapolis, MN), is a sleeper that the Panthers had a good chance with until hometown Minnesota offered. Now it may be a long shot. Kraig Howe of Archbishop Alter HS (Kettering, OH) is a smaller tackle at 6'3" and 255 pounds. He's been to Pitt twice so the Panthers have a chance at the moment, but his recruitment is picking up and there's a chance that he could slip away.
At end, nine offers have gone out and unfortunately Pitt has no shot at six of them. Those six are Jashon Cornell of Cretin-Derham Hall HS (St. Paul, MN), Tyrone Wheatley, Jr. of Canisius HS (Buffalo, NY), Canton Kaumatule of Punahou HS (Honolulu, HI), Arden Key of Martin Luther King HS (Lithonia, GA), Josh Sweat of Oscar Smith HS (Chesapeake, VA), and Shareef Miller of Frankford HS (Philadelphia, PA).
The other three are 6'5" 225 pound Jonathan Holland of The Bullis School (Potomac, MD), 6'5 245 pound Zach Allen of New Canaan (CT) HS, and 6'4" 235 pound Jamie Gordinier of Red Bank (NJ) Catholic HS. All three are big, athletic, and just dripping with potential. If the staff can't land elite prospects at the position (and that's certainly looking like it's the case), then any of these three would be excellent pickups. Holland nearly committed to Pitt on junior day, but was advised by his family to hold off. He's since gone on other visits and the Panthers are trying to hold on to the lead. Allen is under recruited because not many schools go to Connecticut to recruit, so there's a chance that Pitt can steal him. Gordinier is quick enough to play linebacker but may be better suited for end. He already has about a dozen major offers, but so far the elite programs, other than Miami, haven't thrown their hats into the ring.
A wildcard here may be Kevin Givens of Altoona (PA) HS, who just committed to the Panthers. At 6'3" and 235 pounds, he has good size for linebacker, and has really good speed, but like Gordinier he may be best suited as a rush end. He also has the frame to easily add 25 pounds of muscle.
The current line is a major question mark right now due to inexperience, injuries, and past suspensions. There is some talent there, and for the first time in years there are at least some numbers. It's doubtful that any of the players here could come anywhere close to Donald as a player, but Donald was the only good player on the entire line this past season. If the Panthers can come up with four good starters then the line may not miss a beat, but getting four good players out of the returnees is far from a sure thing.
If the staff can land two of Holland, Allen, or Gordinier, and Givens ends up at this position, then they can combine with young promising players like Soto and Maclean to make the future defensive end position very exciting. Defensive ends coach John Palermo is a good coach and could do wonders with this type of talent. This group would also certainly be a big step up from Blair, Roy, and Trehan.
Defensive tackle is still young with seven players returning after next year, eight if you include Trehan who is probably going to end up there. And of that bunch only Dowling won't be back two years from now. For that reason, adding numbers may not be the staff's biggest goal, though a more talented tackle would obviously be great.