Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 17.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (6)
Ola Adeniyi, Bud Dupree, Jayrone Elliott, Alex Highsmith, Cassius Marsh, T.J. Watt
Free Agent Scorecard: 3 unrestricted – Bud Dupree, Jayrone Elliott, Cassius Marsh; 1 restricted – Ola Adeniyi
Take a look at the best photos of the Steelers linebackers during the 2020 season
A LAST LOOK AT 2020
Once again the Steelers ended a regular season having led the NFL in sacks, with 56 in 2020, and even though Bud Dupree played only 11 games before tearing his ACL, he and T.J. Watt combined for 23 of those (41.1 percent). From the start of the 2019 season Watt and Dupree were the best tandem of 3-4 outside linebackers in football, and in their final 58 full games together, they combined for 49 sacks, 109 hits on the quarterback, 16 forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries, three interceptions, and 20 passes defensed. With Dupree about to hit free agency, and with the Steelers lacking the salary cap space to use the franchise tag or negotiate a long-term contract with him, this tandem is about to be broken up.
The Steelers prepared themselves for this breakup by spending a third-round pick on Alex Highsmith in 2020, and he will be expected to start opposite Watt and do his best to compensate for the loss of Dupree. As a rookie, Highsmith started five games, and he finished with two sacks, an interception against the Ravens, and six hits on the quarterback. Coach Mike Tomlin never is shy about expecting players going into their second NFL seasons to show significant improvement, and the Steelers are going to need that from Highsmith for the defense to continue to track the way it has over the previous couple of seasons.
The injury to Dupree significantly neutered the Steelers defense down the stretch in 2020, because even though the defense still ended up leading the NFL in sacks, only four of its 27 takeaways came during the final five games of the regular season, which is when Dupree was injured.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers LB T.J. Watt from the 2020 season
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Since 2000, a span of 21 seasons, an outside linebacker has led the Steelers in sacks 15 times. The only non-OLBs to lead the Steelers in sacks during that period were Cam Heyward (three times), Lawrence Timmons (once), Aaron Smith (once), and Kimo von Oelhoffen (once).
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2021
Even though the Steelers spent a premium pick on Highsmith last spring and expect him to replace Dupree and be the starter opposite Watt, this is not a position the Steelers can afford to consider settled during this offseason even though there might appear to be other, more pressing needs to address.
While Watt is an All-Pro player and produces in the manner of an NFL Defensive Player of the Year, there are not any proven players besides him on this unit. It took almost four full NFL seasons and a position switch from left outside linebacker to right outside linebacker for Dupree to settle in at the position and become a force for the defense, and assuming Highsmith will continue on a steady track of improvement and increased production in just his second season might be a tad optimistic.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers LB Alex Highsmith from the 2020 season
Behind Watt and Highsmith, the other four inside linebackers all fall into one of the categories of free agency. Dupree certainly will get a significant financial offer the Steelers will be unable to match and will be playing elsewhere in 2021, and Jayrone Elliott and Cassius March can become unrestricted free agents as well. Ola Adeniyi is a restricted free agent and likely to return provided the Steelers offer him a tender.
But there's a difference between having enough bodies and having enough depth at an important position on the defense to get through an NFL regular season. Elliott and Marsh are both journeyman types, and Adeniyi has shown some flash at a training camp or two but never has taken that and built upon it during a regular season.
The Steelers would be justified in believing they have the league's best 3-4 outside linebacker in Watt, who has been consistently productive and shown steady improvement over the course of his career. They also would be justified in believing Highsmith is a player who has some potential to become a quality NFL starter at the position even though he is far from a sure thing to attain that in 2021.
But beyond them, this position needs an injection of talent.
NEXT: Offensive Line