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Steelers-By-Position: OLBs

Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 13.

Keion Adams, Ola Adeniyi, Anthony Chickillo, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1; 1 unrestricted – Anthony Chickillo)

The big move at this position involved switching the sides played by Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, with Dupree moving from the left side to the right and Watt moving from the right to the left. The move can be characterized as a success, based on what happened throughout the 2018 season. Compared to his rookie season of 2017, Watt upped his numbers in sacks (13-7), pressures (21-12), and tackles (68-52), while Dupree was able to maintain an almost exact level of production from 2017 to 2018 in terms of his sacks (6-5.5), pressures (7-13), and tackles (40-42).

Based on the last two seasons, it's evident the Steelers made the correct move when they spent a first-round pick on Watt during the 2017 draft, but the jury still is out on Dupree, who was the team's 22nd pick of the first round in 2015.

And while Watt has two more seasons left on his rookie deal, with the Steelers having an option to exercise a fifth year, Dupree will be entering his fifth NFL season in 2019. The Steelers already have exercised the fifth-year option on Dupree's rookie contract, which carries with it a one-year salary for $9.232 million. Under the rules of the CBA, the fifth-year salary becomes guaranteed on the first day of the new league year, which in 2019 is March 13, and a team is able to try to negotiate a longer-term arrangement with the player, or they could release him before the fifth-year salary becomes guaranteed.

With the start of the new league year just five days away, it would seem the Steelers will pay Dupree the $9.232 million, because there has been no chatter about any attempt to negotiate some other settlement – either a reduction or some kind of longer-term arrangement – and if and when those kinds of talks are happening something typically leaks to the media.

Based on comments made by Steelers President Art Rooney II back on Jan. 16, it seemed the team's preference all along was to continue its relationship with Dupree.

"I'm not going to try to predict anything as far as his contract," said Rooney. "I thought Bud had some good games and some other games that were probably not what you would want, but I think there was some progress there this year. We're looking for progress from him again next year."

Anthony Chickillo, an unrestricted-free-agent-to-be, saw the most playing time of all the backups, and he was productive both on defense and on special teams. Chickillo had 18 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three pressures, two passes defensed, and one fumble recovery on defense, with another seven tackles plus a forced fumble on special teams.

Under the up-and-coming category, Ola Adeniyi showed enough during training camp as an undrafted rookie to be a designated-to-return player off the injured reserve list. During the preseason Adeniyi took advantage of his playing time to finish with a team-best three sacks, and he also forced a couple of fumbles. Keion Adams finished with seven tackles and a couple of fumble recoveries in the preseason, and he'll take another shot at making the 53-man roster after being a seventh-round draft pick in 2017.

Over the previous four drafts, the Steelers have used five of their 30 picks – Watt, Adams, Travis Feeney, Dupree, and Chickillo – on outside linebackers. All but Feeney are still with the team.

The situation with Dupree figures to be ongoing issue with the team's fans, because in those circles he is viewed as a disappointment. As it becomes increasingly likely the Steelers will pay him $9.232 million for 2019, the decision-makers see things differently.

"Look, Bud Dupree had his best year last year, and collectively, he and T.J., they're pretty good," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "I like the change that Coach Tomlin made putting T.J. on the left, putting Bud on the right.

"Does Bud still have more? Absolutely, but Bud is a starter on a winning team. Is it a playoff team? No. Does he have more to give? Absolutely. From an effort standpoint? No. It's not a lack of effort. It's (about) let's turn that effort into production. Can he? Will he? We'll see."

Watt appears to be a budding star at the position, but the next level for him would be finding a way to create more takeaways in the midst of the general havoc he creates for the opposing offense. With all the time Watt spends around the quarterback, more forced fumbles wouldn't seem to be a ridiculous expectation; and as he becomes more experienced and develops a deeper understanding of NFL offenses he should become better at finding the football in coverage because he does have the hands to hold onto it when it comes to him.

To this point in his career, Chickillo hasn't shown himself to be a full-time starter on a contending team, but he is a valuable backup at both outside linebacker positions, he's productive enough to be part of a regular in-game rotation on defense, and he is dependable on the kick coverage units. Re-signing him might not deserve to be called a priority, but keeping him is important based on what the team currently has at this position.

Adams and Adeniyi both will get another chance this summer to show they belong on a 53-man roster and can contribute once they get on it. A good first step for both of them would be to stay healthy enough to keep themselves on the practice field so that they can improve as defensive players, and then make themselves core special teams contributors to give that process extra time to develop.

NEXT: Wide receivers