Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 18.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (5)
Ola Adeniyi, Anthony Chickillo, Bud Dupree, Tuzar Skipper, T.J. Watt
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Bud Dupree)
A LAST LOOK AT 2019
When the Pittsburgh Steelers were dominating the NFL back in the 1970s, they did it with their front four. In 1974, the season that ended with their first of four Super Bowl titles during the decade, the defensive line, which was known at the time as the Steel Curtain, recorded 40 sacks in a 14-game season in an era of NFL football where offenses routinely ran the ball on first and second downs. Ernie Holmes (11.5 sacks), L.C. Greenwood (11), Joe Greene (nine) and Dwight White (8.5) terrorized both opposing quarterbacks and running backs in a season where the Steelers defense recorded 52 sacks, 25 interceptions, and 22 fumbles recovered.
But then came the 1980s, and Chuck Noll switched the defensive scheme to the 3-4, and that alignment depended upon the outside linebackers to provide the bulk of a team's sack total. In the history of the Steelers using the 3-4 defense, their two starting outside linebackers have posted double-digit sacks in the same regular season six times. It happened in 1994, with Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd; in 2000 with Jason Gildon and Joey Porter; in 2008, 2009, and 2010 with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley; and then last season with T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.
In each of the previous few seasons, the Steelers defense had been at or near the top of the league in sacks, but this was the first of those when the team didn't have to rely so much on blitzing, and that was because of how productive Watt and Dupree were.
Watt led the way with 14.5 sacks, and he also made a case for being the NFL Defensive Player of the Year by complementing the sacks with two interceptions, eight passes defensed, eight forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and a team-best 36 hits on the quarterback. Dupree has improved steadily since Coach Mike Tomlin had him and Watt switch sides, and there is no question his 2019 season was his best as a pro. In addition to his 11.5 sacks, Dupree led the defense with 16 tackles for loss on running plays, 17 total hits on the quarterback, three passes defensed, four forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.
Anthony Chickillo was the No. 3 outside linebacker last season, and his one-half sack made him the most productive of the team's backups at the position. Ola Adeniyi had two tackles on defense, and both he and Chickillo contributed six tackles on special teams.
ONE STAT THAT STAND OUT
Of the six seasons in franchise history where the Steelers' starting outside linebackers both recorded double-digit sack seasons, three occurred in non-playoff seasons (2000, 2009, and 2019); one (2008) ended with a win in the Super Bowl; one (2010) ended with a loss in the Super Bowl; and one (1994) ended with a loss in the Conference Championship Game.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2020
Bud Dupree blossomed in what was the option year of his rookie contract, and so he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on March 18. That's unlikely to happen, with the Steelers virtually certain to use the franchise tag on him if a long-term agreement cannot be reached, but one way or another it seems a virtual certainty Dupree will be under contract to the team in 2019. As far as T.J. Watt's contract status, he will be playing under the fourth year of his rookie contract, and the Steelers either will sign him to an extension this spring/summer or exercise the fifth-year option on that rookie deal with the idea of continuing to work on a long-term extension for him.
It's the contract situations of both Dupree and Watt that will inhibit the Steelers' ability to do much in the way of signing outside unrestricted free agents during this upcoming period, but the team long has had the philosophy of keeping its own good players, and Dupree and Watt certainly qualify as that. The team has a couple of legitimate flame-throwers as a tandem of outside linebackers, and so it's not about to lose them without exhausting all of the provisions available in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The issue now at the outside linebacker position is depth, and not so much as a hedge against injury – although that's always a consideration – but also because Dupree and Watt are at their best when they're able to take some snaps off during a particular game. Last season, and for the previous couple of seasons, Anthony Chickillo was the No. 3 outside linebacker, and in addition to being able to spell both Watt and Dupree during a particular game, he also added value on game days as a core special teams player. Chickillo reportedly will carry a $6.1 million cap hit for 2020, and that could make him susceptible when the Steelers go about the business of looking for cap space over the next few weeks.
Behind Chickillo is a lot of inexperience, with maybe some potential but little real production. Two summers ago, undrafted rookie Ola Adeniyi made a name for himself with a preseason that included three sacks, and since then he has played a total of 17 regular season games but has yet to record a sack of a hit on the quarterback in the regular season. Last summer, undrafted rookie Tuzar Skipper had five sacks and seven hits on the quarterback to capture the fancy of Steelers Nation, and after a six-game stint with the Giants during which he record one-half sack and recovered a fumble, he found his way back to the Steelers and signed a contract binding him to the team through the 2021 season.
Adeniyi is getting to the stage in his career when he will need to show the Steelers he can be a regular contributor in a defined role on defense, because once he gets through his third and fourth seasons in the NFL he becomes eligible for different levels of free agency, and the team's financial investment in him will have to rise significantly. For his part, Skipper is going to have to show he can learn the scheme and the intricacies of playing it, because rolling up sack statistics in the second halves of preseason games might be good enough for a rookie, but to hold a spot on an NFL roster it's going to require more than that. It would be surprising if the Steelers didn't address their depth at outside linebacker during this offseason, and it would rise to the level of a priority if Chickillo becomes a cap casualty.
NEXT: Running Backs