Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 14.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS – (6)
Keion Adams, Anthony Chickillo, Bud Dupree, Farrington Huguenin, Arthur Moats, T.J. Watt
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2; 1 unrestricted – Arthur Moats; 1 restricted – Anthony Chickillo)
A LAST LOOK AT 2017
The Steelers set a franchise record with 56 sacks, a total that also led the NFL, and in days gone by that would've meant a couple of the guys at this position put up double-digit totals. But alas, that wasn't the case, and based on what Coach Mike Tomlin was saying late last season about how the responsibilities of the team's outside linebackers have evolved, it may not be like it used to be ever again.
When asked if the role of Steelers outside linebacker had evolved away from being primarily pass-rushers into guys who are asked to do more things in coverage, Tomlin said, "Without question. And it's evolved within the last decade, since I've been here. Outside linebacker was a rush-man's position in the early part of my tenure. Guys like LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison were defensive-end-like. They rushed the vast majority of the time. With the evolution of spread football, read-option football, RPOs as the college guys call it – run-pass options – and all the empty backfield stuff, it has become a hybrid position, where they're asked to do a lot of things: rush, drop in zone, play man-to-man. I just think it's part of the evolution of football, and I think (outside linebackers) are the most significant components to the adjustments that defenses have made.
"That's why 10 years ago, there were maybe three or four 3-4 teams in the NFL, and that's why probably half the teams in the NFL now are 3-4 teams. You better have that flexibility in terms of getting people on their feet and playing on their feet, because of the perimeter game, the spread game, and the RPO game."
Of the Steelers' 56 sacks, the outside linebackers combined for 17, with the breakdown being as follows: T.J. Watt led with seven; Bud Dupree had six, Anthony Chickillo had three, and James Harrison had one. In fact, Watt might be the new prototype for what the Steelers are seeking at the position because he was the only linebacker in the NFL to finish the season with at least 50 tackles (52), five sacks (seven), five passes defensed (eight), and one interception (one).
"That position probably is being redefined in a lot of ways by the game," said Tomlin. "Some of the plays we've seen T.J. Watt make in the passing game this year – the big-time interception in Cleveland in his first NFL game, the big-time breakup he had against Jordy Nelson in the Green Bay game – and 10 years ago you never would've seen LaMarr Woodley even in a position to make those plays. That's just the evolution of football.
"That position is being shaped and shaped in a big way by the evolution of football, and the (outside linebackers') ability to adjust will define them and their careers, because they're very young, but also define us as a defensive unit in terms of how we evolve in the upcoming seasons. I know I was cognizant of it in the drafting of T.J. A lot about him made him attractive: the fact he is very comfortable playing on his feet – he's more of a linebacker than a defensive lineman; he had a background as an offensive player and an understanding of offensive football because he was a tight end, and that aids you big-time in coverage. All of those things are very much a part of the discussion in the evaluation of that position, where 10, 11 years ago I looked at LaMarr Woodley and said, "Man, he's a heck of a rush-man. Let's take him." Therein lies the evolution of the game, and the evolution at that position specifically."
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
In 2016, in setting a franchise record with 56 sacks, the Steelers got 27 from their linebackers and 23 from their defensive linemen. The record they broke was 55, which was set in 1994 and then tied in 2001. In 1994, 37.5 of their 55 sacks came from linebackers with 12.5 from defensive linemen; and in 2001, 32 of their 55 sacks came from linebackers with 15 from defensive linemen.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2018
The Steelers are heavily invested at this position, with Watt and Dupree both former first-round picks, and the team has a decision to make in whether it chooses to exercise the fifth-year option on Dupree's rookie contract. That decision will come some time in early May, and it can be expected to cost the team in excess of $9 million for the 2018 season.
Dupree has played in 38 regular season games (24 starts), and he has 14.5 sacks, no interceptions and three passes defensed during his career so far. A faction of the fans and the media have labeled Dupree a bust on the same order as Jarvis Jones, another outside linebacker who was a first-round pick (2013), and it'll be interesting to see if the Steelers decline to pick up Dupree's option, as they did with Jones, or if their opinion of Dupree is higher and they believe he can adapt to the way they now want the position to be played.
Based on his multi-layered production as a rookie, there wouldn't seem to be any such doubt about the track of Watt's career here. Chickillo had his best professional season in 2017, and also saw his most playing time. A former sixth-round pick who is a restricted free agent, Chickillo adds value as a special teams player. The Steelers will want to keep him for another year, at least.
Moats, who will turn 30 in a couple of weeks, can become an unrestricted free agent on March 14, and his current value to the team is that he can play multiple linebacker positions and also contribute on special teams.