Here is the next in a position-by-position series on the Steelers at the conclusion of the 2022 season as they head into the start of the NFL free agent period, which opens March 15.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (4)
T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, Malik Reed, Jamir Jones
(free agent scorecard: 1 unrestricted, Malik Reed)
A LAST LOOK AT 2022
Coming off winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2021, T.J. Watt looked poised for another dominant season.
But he suffered a knee injury in the preseason, then suffered a pectoral injury in the regular season opener, missing the next seven games. The Steelers' record in those games was 1-6.
Without Watt, the Steelers allowed 25.3 points and 389.9 yards per game. They had 8 sacks and 5 takeaways in those seven games. In 10 games with Watt, the Steelers went 8-2, allowing 16.9 points and 289.9 yards per game, while recording 32 sacks and 18 takeaways.
Watt had surgery to clean up the knee issue while he was on the Reserve/Injured List, then suffered a rib injury that he played through after returning, but he still had 39 tackles, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions, 8 tackles for a loss and five pass deflections. He also demands additional attention from opponents every time he's on the field.
Despite Watt missing so much time, Alex Highsmith had a breakout season in 2022, leading the Steelers with a career-high 14.5 sacks, third-most in the AFC.
Highsmith also had 63 tackles, including 12 for a loss, and 20 quarterback hits this season, as well as leading the NFL with five forced fumbles.
He is an emerging star.
The Steelers traded for Malik Reed in training camp, sending a 2023 sixth-round draft pick to Denver and also getting a seventh-round pick in return.
Reed played 396 defensive snaps, but the Steelers also used rookie defensive end DeMarvin Leal on the edge to help offset the loss of Watt.
Reed finished with 25 tackles, one sack and four quarterback hits in his limited playing time.
The Steelers claimed Jamir Jones off waivers in early September and he became a core special teams player, playing 251 snaps on special teams, third-most on the team.
Jones finished the season with 10 tackles.
ONE STAT THAT STOOD OUT
After leading the NFL in sacks in each of the previous five NFL seasons, an NFL record, the Steelers slumped to 40 sacks in 2022, which ranked 16th in the league. The outside linebackers produced 21 of those sacks. Watt had 22.5 sacks in 2021 by himself.
LOOK AHEAD TO 2023
Keeping Watt and Highsmith on the field together in 2023 is a must, as the dropoff when they weren't both on the field was quite apparent.
A rebound by Watt and Highsmith continuing on his career trajectory would make this a dangerous duo in 2023. In fact, it would arguably be the league's best pass rushing duo.
Adding depth at the position also is critical with Watt set to turn 29 next season and Highsmith heading into the final season of his rookie contract.
Reed had 15 sacks in a part-time role with the Broncos, but that pass rush ability didn't translate to his time with the Steelers.
The Steelers also obviously like Jones. He's now been with the team on two different occasions and he'll get an opportunity to show he can have a bigger role in 2023.
Former sixth-round draft pick Quincy Roche also was signed to a futures deal. Roche, taken in the 2021 draft, spent the past two seasons with the Giants after being released at the end of training camp in his rookie season. In two years in New York, Roche had 40 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 17 games, three of them starts.