Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 9.
LINEBACKERS – (12)
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Sean Spence)
Having that season-opening game against the defending champion Patriots on the first Thursday night of the season forced the Steelers into some roster moves that seemed questionable on the surface but were in fact necessary given the circumstances. Chickillo was a part of the initial 53-man roster, but he ended up being waived when the team added running back Jordan Todman to take the place of Le'Veon Bell, who had to serve a two-game suspension at the start of the season. As many Steelers fans threw a hissy fit, the team continued to build the best roster it could, and Chickillo subsequently was added to the practice squad on Sept. 7. By the end of the month Chickillo was on the 53-man roster, but that was a move more about protecting his future than taking advantage of his present. The Steelers need more production from their group of outside linebackers, and Chickillo is a part of their future at the position even though he wasn't ready to play as a rookie.
Not a bad first full season in the NFL – four sacks, six pressures, while splitting time at left outside linebacker with Arthur Moats – but the way it limped to a finish turned it into a somewhat stereotypical rookie season. Developing the stamina to be productive over the whole 16-game regular season is one of the challenges of this offseason for Dupree, and Coach Mike Tomlin can be expected to ramp up the level of expectation for him in 2016. A good start for Dupree, but he must understand it only was a start.
When he arrived in Latrobe – claimed off waivers from New England on Aug. 19 – Fort was a healthy body for practice at a spot where the Steelers happened to be running low of those. But he showed enough quickly enough, first to get onto the field for preseason games and then to be signed to the practice squad when that business was being conducted in early September. Fort could make the 2016 Steelers as an inside linebacker and special teams ace, and his path to that figures to hinge at least partly on whether Sean Spence leaves during free agency.
He has completed four seasons in the NFL without having any impact on the Steelers as an inside linebacker, but in his last three seasons he has finished third, tied-for-first, and then third again, respectively, in special teams tackles. That kind of production in the kicking game equates to job security, and Garvin unquestionably is one of the Steelers' core special teams players. He cannot rest on those laurels, but he can be confident that continuing to produce in the kicking game is a path to an NFL paycheck.
What Harrison has meant to the Steelers in each phase of his career, including the 2015 season, has been different but still significant. Harrison will be 38 on May 4, and if he wants to do it again there is little question he would finish the 2016 preseason as one of the Steelers' 53 best players. In this recent phase of his career, Harrison serves as an example to young players with respect to the work ethic required to survive and thrive in the NFL, and it should have been a teaching point for them that Harrison said his decision about coming back himself for a 15th season would hinge on whether he believed he could commit himself to the offseason work it's going to require. As of today, it seems as though the Steelers are a better team in 2016 if Harrison decides to return.
Some fans undoubtedly are frustrated by the course of Jones' career so far, what with him coming to the Steelers in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft and finishing his fourth NFL season with pedestrian statistics, all of which stem from the fact he has played in 36 of a possible 48 regular season games and started only 26 of those. Regardless of what anyone might believe Jones should have become by now, what's real is that Jones had his most productive season in 2015. What he did in 2015 was make plays – the sack and forced fumble in San Diego, the first-quarter interception at the goal line vs. Indianapolis, the sack and forced fumble in the Wild Card Game in Cincinnati. That, coupled with the realistic options for the team there in 2016 point to the Steelers needing him next season, at the least.
Using any metric you choose, Moats qualifies as one of the Steelers' better free agent signings. Productive on the field and an asset in the locker room, Moats has shown himself to be someone who does things the right way. He's never going to be a guy who will win a bunch of year-end individual honors, but Moats also is never going to be a guy who costs his team with some knuckleheaded act of selfishness. Moats remains an asset for this team and franchise.
The best photos of Linebacker Ryan Shazier from the 2015 season thus far.
By the end of 2015 it was quite evident why the Steelers picked Shazier in the first round in 2014. He had at least six tackles in eight of the final nine regular season games, and during that span he also had two sacks, four passes defensed, an interception, and a forced fumble. Then in the Wild Card Game victory, Shazier had 13 tackles, two passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He also was the player receiving the play-call from the sideline and communicating it to the rest of players on the field. Shazier is on his way to becoming one of the NFL's dynamic defensive playmakers.
There had to be some dark times during Spence's multi-year rehabilitation from knee surgery when it was unclear whether he'd ever play in the NFL let alone reach a stage where he could sign a second professional contract. But here he is, with the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent on March 9, and it's difficult to go into it not wanting the best for Spence. If he leaves, he will be missed. If he stays, he'll be an asset.
There is an argument to be made that Timmons no longer plays to the level of his salary cap hit, but most of that is the Steelers' fault for using him to create some cap relief in each of the past few offseasons. Timmons is still far too significant to these Steelers to be a cap casualty, even as it seems to be developing that Shazier is going to be the inside linebacker making more splash plays moving forward. From a football standpoint, it's foolish to suggest Timmons isn't one of the four best linebackers on the Steelers' roster, and usually the accountants figure a way to make the numbers work in cases like this.
Maybe offensive football in the NFL has evolved away from Williams' strengths as a player, but what's more proven is that teams capable of winning a championship have players such as Williams on their roster. Williams has what coaches call the proper playing demeanor, and he displays that both as an inside linebacker and on special teams.
In each of his two NFL training camps, Zumwalt has flashed some things in practice and then sustained an injury that caused him to miss too much time to have a chance at making the roster. That happened with Zumwalt for the second time last summer, and he spent 2015 on injured reserve. If he comes back for another camp, can Zumwalt stay healthy? And do the Steelers risk it?