Steelers 2018 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to Bail on Bud Dupree?

Coming off one of the best seasons any Steelers rookie has had in quite some time, T.J. Watt, the first round choice in 2017, appears to have finally satisfied the organization’s long search for the next prolific outside linebacker, a position synonymous with greatness in the Steel City.

Or has he?

With less than three weeks to go before the 2018 NFL Draft, just how high on the list of priorities is outside linebacker for the Steelers? The answer hinges not on Watt’s development, but on the development of his couterpart whom the Steelers drafted two seasons before him. Let’s take a look.

Bud Dupree, Bobbie Massie, Steelers vs Bears

Bud Dupree tries to get past Bobby Massie. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

As mentioned, T.J. Watt had a whale of a rookie season, tallying 52 total tackles, seven sacks, seven passes defensed, one interception and one forced fumble (the only player in the NFL at his position–rookie or otherwise–to post such an impressive stat line in 2017.)

Being the younger brother of the legendary J.J. Watt, it’s perhaps no surprise Watt picked things up so quickly and was so productive in his very first season. As I alluded to earlier, unless he’s felled by an injury, Watt seems destined to be the Steelers next great outside linebacker.

  • But Watt can only man one position at a time–the right side.

What about left outside linebacker, a position that has previously been occupied by the likes of LaMarr Woodley and Jason Gildon?

Coming off of his third year in Pittsburgh, Bud Dupree appears to have all the potential in the world, and unlike disappointing 2013 first round pick, Jarvis Jones, Dupree has often shown flashes of that potential during his first three years with the Steelers.

After coming back from offseason groin surgery late in the 2016 campaign and recording 4.5 sacks over the final seven games, there was great excitement about Dupree heading into 2017.

  • However, despite starting 15 games, Dupree seemed to fall out of favor, at least with a fan base that wondered why he could only muster six sacks.

But as DK Sports’ Chris Carter pointed out late last year, Dupree was asked to drop back into pass coverage 75 percent of the time, something that seems to be more of a job requirement for Steelers linebackers in general, these days, as the pass rushing duties have been dispersed more evenly among all defenders under Keith Butler‘s watch (the defense set a franchise record with 56 sacks a year ago).

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

As of this writing, there are only two backup outside linebackers on the Steelers’ depth chart–2015 sixth round pick, Anthony Chickillo; and 2017 seventh round pick, Keion Adams.

  • 2017 was a bit of a break out year for Chickillo, as the converted defensive end out of the University of Miami recorded three sacks, including two while starting in place of Dupree in Week 1.

At 25 years old, Anthony Chickillo is still young enough to offer legitimate “upside,” and he’ll surely continue to get that chance, as he’s been a regular part of the team’s rotation at the outside linebacker spot since 2016.

As for Keion Adams, it’s really hard to say what he brings to the table, considering he spent his entire rookie season on Injured Reserve. As suggested here last spring, given the Steelers pedigree at the position, being drafted in the 7th round as an outside linebacker might seem hopeless, but Carlos Emmons faced a similar fate in 1996, and had a pretty good career.

Steelers 2018 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs

With veteran Arthur Moats currently a free agent after spending the last four years with the Steelers, there is obviously room for another body or two at the outside linebacker spot.

However, with more pressing needs heading into the draft, such as inside linebacker, safety, and even running back, the outside linebacker spot may not be a position the Steelers feel anxious about addressing during the first few rounds–and this would especially be the case if the versatile Moats is still in the team’s plans.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • The real question in defining the Steelers 2018 outside lienbacker draft needs comes down to how you assess Bud Dupree.

When they drafted him the Steelers knew Bud Dupree was a “project” who offered tremendous athleticism but lacked polish. In his time in Pittsburgh, both traits have been on display, although Dupree’s contributions to the Steelers 2016 turn around are often overlooked.

Still, with three years under his belt, Dupree has yet to dispel the doubters. One prominent Steelers writer contacted by this site for an opinion about Dupree asserted that he will never be anything more than a “marginal starter.”

Yet, when asked about him recently, Kevin Colbert argued: “I think Bud is just scratching the surface to what he can be. He’s shown us enough signs that that can happen and will happen.” That’s an unambiguous statement from a General Manger who holds his cards close to the vest.

With that said, tt is true that Dupree’s fifth-year option has yet to be picked up, but that’s still not enough to make the Steelers need at the position anything but Low-Moderate. 

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Steelers Sign Jon Bostic, Bolstering Inside Linebacker Depth with Risk-Reward Free Agent Pickup

Oh, sometimes you’ve got to love being a blogger. So just yesterday morning Steel Curtain Rising published a missive on the first week of free agency in Pittsburgh with a lead paragraph that closed, “All Quiet on the South Side Front.” Things had been quite on the acquisition and departure front, and were expected to stay that way….

  • …And of course, within two hours of running the story news broke that saw the Steelers sign Jon Bostic, the inside linebacker most recently with the Indianapolis Colts.

Terms of Jon Bostic’s contract with the Steelers have not been disclosed, and his agreement with the Steelers contingent on him passing a physical while at Steelers facilities. The latter part is key, as it highlights the risk-reward nature of the move.

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, Jon Bostic, Knile Davis, steelers colts preseason 2017

Steelers sign Jon Bostic, ILB from Colts. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today, via Scout

Colbert, Tomlin/Steelers Learning from Ladarius Green Debacle?

Word is that two years ago when the Steelers acted to sign Ladarius Green on the first day of free agency, they did so without doing their medical due diligence.

If that is indeed true, that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin deserve to earn a big black demerit by their names as Ladarius Green ended up playing 6 games on a 4 year contract due to his concussion history and ankle injuries.

  • Clearly the Steelers brain trust is weary of Jon Bostic’s injury history.

Jon Bostic saw injuries ruin his 2015 season when he was with the New England Patriots. That led the Patriots to trade him to the Detroit Lions in 2016, but Bostic was forced to sit the year out on injured reserve. The Indianapolis Colts signed Bostic in 2017 and he started 14 games before, you guessed it, a knee injured landed him on injured reserve.

It is somewhat ironic that the Steelers would replace an injured player with another player who has a history of chorionic injuries. One has to figure that the Steelers are looking at Jon Bostic as someone to throw into the mix as opposed to someone arriving to be “the answer” at inside linebacker.

Jon Bostic’s “Upside”

Injury issues aside raise the risk to this move, Jon Bostic does look like the typical Steelers under-the radar free agent. Jon Bostic’s  career stat sheet doesn’t hint at hidden superstar ability, but it does show a solid player with some upside.

Steelers blogger Alex Kozora shared a video clip on Twitter that hints some of the update that Jon Bostic offers the Steelers. This is taken from the Steelers 2017 win over the Colts and Jon Bostic is wearing number 57:

Notice how Bostic immediately reads the play and closes into the line of scrimmage to set the edge even before Ben Roethlisberger complets the hand off, he avoids getting entangled by David DeCastro and shows excellent lateral movement as he shadows Le’Veon Bell.

  • While Bell does get to turn the corner, because Bostic is able to stop him from behind.

Assuming Bostic passes his physical, he immediately bolsters the Steelers inside linebacking corps. At a very minimum he’s a presence who can move in along side Vince Williams to press Tyler Matakevich and would also push any early round draft pick the Steelers would select in the 2018 NFL Draft with an eye towards replacing Ryan Shazier long-term.

Steelers Signing Bostic is Bad News for Spence, Timmons

The fact that the Steelers have moved to sign Jon Bostic so almost certainly rules out a Lawrence Timmons reunion. Timmons was Mike Tomlin’s first round draft pick, and a reported favorite of the head coach who departed to the Miami Dolphins last spring. Timmons didn’t like it there and even showed up at the Steelers training facility early in the season.

  • The Dolphins have since cut Timmons, leading to speculation he could return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers aren’t going to spend their meager salary cap space on two inside linebackers. And that also likely means that Sean Spence’s second stint with the Steelers will be his last.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Jon Bostic.

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Never a Superstar, Steelers Free Agent Arthur Moats Is Solid Backup Who Delivers When It Counts

The Pittsburgh Steelers are not splash players in free agency. Sure, the franchise used free agency to secure the services of future Hall of Famers such as Kevin Greene and fixture starters like Ryan Clark, but the Pittsburgh has never put itself into contention for the off season Lombardi.

But most Steelers free agent signing headlines are more likely to elicit a “Who?” opposed to an, “Yes! We got him!” from fans. So, from that perspective, Arthur Moats in many ways has been a typical Steelers free agent signing, which speaks well of both him and the team. And as Moats reaches free agency again, it will be interesting to see if the Steelers offer him a third contract.

Arthur Moats, Arthur Moats strip sack Andy Dalton, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Arthur Moats strip sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Arthur Moats Steelers Career

Arthur Moats joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013 during a time of turmoil at outside linebacker.

After ending 3 straight seasons on injured reserve, the Steelers had parted ways with LaMarr Woodley. Jason Worilds had finally seemed to hit his stride, posting a good although not great year, prompting Pittsburgh to transition tag him. While Jarvis Jones rookie year had provided a mixed bag, the latest done jersey number 95 still had legitimate “upside.”

So it came as a bit of a surprise, when at the end of March, the Steelers signed Arthur Moats from the Buffalo Bills. The move to bring in Arthur Moats delivered almost immediate dividends, as Moats recorded a sack in relief of Jarvis Jones in the Steelers win over Carolina. Moats forced a critical fumble in the Steelers November win over the Ravens, and also downed Joe Flacco.

In 2015 the Steelers drafted Bud Dupree, but Bud Dupree’s arrival didn’t stop Moats from making splash plays, as he recovered a fumble on Cleveland’s first play of the game, setting up a Steelers score. For the season, Moats recorded 4 sacks and recovered two fumbles.

In 2016, Arthur Moats recorded 3.5 sacks and defensed 3 passes while splitting time with Bud Dupree, and finished the season with two sacks against the Browns in the finale. In 2107, Moats saw his playing time drop, as the rotation at outside linebacker ended. Still, he saw action n 14 games, including work at inside linebacker due to injuries to Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Arthur Moats

Let’s face it, backups don’t move the mercury of fan enthusiasm (save for perhaps DeAngelo Williams.) When you think of great Steelers outside linebackers, you think of Hall of Famers like Jack Ham and Kevin Greene, or intimidating legends like Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter or James Harrison.

  • Arthur Moats name’s never going to make that least, nor should it.

But that wasn’t what Arthur Moats was brought to Pittsburgh to do. He was brought to in to be a backup, and the first role of a good backup is to provide stability when the starter is unavailable. Arthur Moats has started 24 of his 62 games in Pittsburgh, and he’s provided solid stability with splash play making ability.

Arthur Moats is just the kind of player you want in the mix behind T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo. He’s only just turning 30, and he’s not going to cost a lot of money. What’s the wait?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Against Arthur Moats

For better (see keeping T.J. Watt in the game) and for worse (see the James Harrison situation), the Steelers ended their outside linebacker rotation in 2017 and there’s been no indication that will change in 2018.

The Steelers have salary cap issues, and while Arthur Moats isn’t going to command serious money from any NFL team, he is someone who deserves to get paid more than the veteran minimum. Depth is nice, but the Steelers have Kion Adams coming off of injured reserve, who could grow into a Moats type role and would do so for a lot less money.

Resigning Arthur Moats would make for a quality feel-good story, but is it a luxry the Steelers can afford?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Arthur Moats

We started by saying that in a lot of ways Arthur Moats is your typical Steelers free agent. His arrival was unheralded, he provided stability and depth in an understudy role and delivered convincingly when called upon.

  • In fact, Arthur Moats is kind of a defensive equivalent to Mewelde Moore.

When you say “Championship caliber player” you probably don’t think someone like Mewelde Moore, yet Moore was the unsung hero of the 2008 Steelers season that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.

When it comes to winning Lombardi Number 7, Arthur Moats’ impact will never equal that of, say, Cam Heyward, but he’s shown the ability to be the “Next man up” when his number is called, and championship rosters require players who fit that role.

If the Steelers are smart, they’ll find a way to bring back Arthur Moats.

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This Time There’s No Suspense over Sean Spence’s Impending Free Agency with Steelers

25 years ago the arrival of free agency breathed life into the once staid NFL off season by introducing an element of the unknown. Once, after the games ended, news on the NFL would dry up, except for the draft.

  • Now February is filled with speculation over what will happen, while free agent moves dominate the news in March.

Sean Spence has been around long enough that this is his second go-around as a Steelers free agent. Two seasons ago there was legitimate speculation about his fate and future with the team. Today there’s little suspense behind Sean Spence’s free agency. Let’s look at why.

Sean Spence, Steelers vs Texans, Steelers win Texans Christmas

Sean Spence in Steelers Christmas win over Texans. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Sean Spence’s Steelers Career

The Steelers picked Sean Spence in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft hoping to replace James Farrior and/or Larry Foote. Early returns indicated Spence was that player until devastating knee injury threatened to end Sean Spence’s NFL career before it began.

The Steelers kept him on IR for two seasons, but drafted Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier to hedge their bets.
By the time Steelers OTAs in the spring of 2014, both Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier had passed him on the depth chart, but Sean Spence was back to full health, and looking good.

Sean Spence earned a roster spot, and entered the season as “The next man up” at inside linebacker. Injuries quickly paved the way for Spence’s to get playing time, and he 8 games where he:

Spence didn’t have quite as many “Splash Plays” in 2015, but he continued to rotate with Williams in relief of Shazier, and started four games during the course of the season. Spence’s strong resume led to speculation that the Steelers might resign him with an eye toward replacing Lawrence Timmons.

  • That never happened.

Sean Spence looked like a “Starter Capable” player and he followed Dick LeBeau to the Tennessee Titans. Despite some solid numbers in 2016, Spence didn’t get an offer after playing on his one year deal. The Colts signed him, but cut him before training camp, brought him back for a few games, but Spence was on the couch out of football when Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion against the Bengals.

The Steelers resigned Spence and he started immediately, looking ever bit like a player coming off the couch in the Steelers games against the Ravens and Patriots. He played better against the Texans and Browns, but was part of an atrocious defensive effort in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Sean Spence

Sean Spence knows the system, having come up under Dick LeBeau and playing for Keith Butler. Perhaps Sean Spence isn’t a long-term answer or a long term starter for the Steelers at inside linebacker, but his experience suits him to serve as a bridge starter and mentor to the inside linebacker the Steelers will likely chose early in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Sean Spence

The Steelers lost Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich in a matter of minutes, and it was clear through the rest of the game that L.J. Fort and Arthur Moats weren’t up to replacing him in the middle caused Kevin Colbert to look to Sean Spence.

  • But Steelers defense was flatfooted without Shazier, and Spence did little to change that.

Sure, he improved during the regular season, but he really didn’t give much of an indication that he was even a short-term answer. The Steelers need to improve at inside linebacker, and its hard to make the case that Sean Spence’s return helps make that happen.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Sean Spence

Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about how twin injuries have forever linked the fates of Sean Spence and Ryan Shazier. It was an inspiring story.

  • But inspiration isn’t what the Steelers need at inside linebacker, what they need is a dynamic playmaker.

Word is that Lawrence Timmons will be on the free agent market, and speculation is that the Steelers would bring him back. Its entirely possible that Timmons would do more for this unit than Spence, which should tell you what you need to know.

After the dust of both free agency and the draft settles, Sean Spence may be worth a considering bringing back at a veteran minimum contract, but anything beyond that would be a surprise.

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What Should The Steelers Do With Restricted Free-Agent Anthony Chickillo?

“Depth is the first victum of the salary cap.” It might be a cliche, but most cliche’s era their idiomatic status because they’re true. Unlike 70’s and 80’s, the salary cap has made it near impossible for any team to be as deep as it wants to be.

  • Sure, a team that drafts exceptionally well can stock its backup slots with true rising stars, but free agency renders such situations temporary.

Think of the Steelers recent history at inside linebacker.

Just a few years ago Pittsburgh boasted Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Sean Spence AND Terence Garvin. Bob Labriola described the Steelers depth there as “obscene.” That was then, this is now. In the space of a few series against Cincinnati, the 2017 Steelers went from having inside linebacker as a team strength, to having to call Sean Spence off of a couch in Florida to start the next week.

As the Pittsburgh Steelers gear up for 2018’s free agency period, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would do well to keep that experience front-of-mind as they make decisions regarding restricted free agent linebacker Anthony Chickillo.  

Anthony Chickillo, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

Anthony Chickillo closes in on DeShone Kizer. Photo Credit: David Richard, AP via PennLive.com

 

Capsule Profile Of Anthony Chickillo’s Steelers Career

Anthony Chickillo was a defensive end for the University of Miami Hurricanes who came to Pittsburgh as a sixth round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Given the Steelers long history as a 3-4 defensive team, Chickillo’s size (his draft profile listed him at 267 pounds) wasn’t going to translate well to the pro level–at least not in Pittsburgh. Therefore, the plan was for Chickillo to transition to outside linebacker under the tutelage of position coach Joey Porter.

But there was the matter of Anthony Chickillo making it onto the final roster during his rookie training camp. While Chickillo did initially make his first roster, he was waived days later and signed to the practice squad.

Fortunately for Anthony Chickillo, he was quickly promoted to the active roster and, according to his Wikipedia page, he made his NFL debut at Heinz Field against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6.

  • All-in-all, Chickillo appeared in seven games in 2015, forcing one fumble and recovering another.

However, it was in his second season when Anthony Chickillo, now fully transitioned to the outside linebacker position, would learn his craft via baptism by fire.

Anthony Chickillo was not only part of the team’s early-season plan to rotate its outside linebackers, he actually started seven games, after 2015 first round pick Bud Dupree was placed on Injured Reserve following offseason surgery.

Anthony Chickillo recorded 19 tackles and the first 2.5 sacks of his career in 2016, before ultimately taking a backseat to veteran James Harrison and the newly-activated Dupree down the stretch.

Anthony Chickillo’s finest hour occurred against the Browns in Week 1 of last year, when he posted two sacks while starting in place of Dupree and recorded the Steelers first touchdown of the season, after recovering a blocked punt by Tyler Matakevich in the end zone early in the first quarter.

Chickillo appeared in all 16 games a year ago, but he only added one more sack to his Week 1 total.

The Case For The Steelers Tendering Anthony Chickillo 

It shouldn’t take much more than a low tender to keep Chickillo around for another year. With veteran Arthur Moats about to hit unrestricted free-agency, the Steelers could soon be lacking in proven depth at the outside linebacker spot behind Dupree and second-year man T.J. Watt.

  • However, the Steelers need to be smart here.

Anthony Chickillo body of work, while not jaw dropping, certainly shows his can play in the NFL and his development is trending in the direction of “starter capable.” Offering Anthony Chickillo a tender that is too low might invite a team to extend him an offer.

And, if anything will be different than previous years, we know that James Harrison isn’t going to be around as an emergency outside linebacker.

The Case Against The Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo 

The case against the Steelers offering Anthony Chickillo a restricted free agent tender would go like this. At age 25, hasn’t evolved much beyond that of a depth player since making the transition from his college position. Sure, he’s trending towards “starter capable status,” but is he there yet?

  • The Steelers have to be stingy about using their salary cap space.

Its true that Pittsburgh’s depth at outside linebacker has befitted the team over the past few seasons, but depth isn’t a luxury that a team that borders on salary cap purgatory can afford.

While its true that Anthony Chickillo is the kind of player you’d like to get back for at least another year, the harsh realities of salary cap dollars an sense suggest that Pittsburgh’s best choice is to take the risk of making him a free agent, and bringing him back for the veteran minimum.

Curtain’s Call On The Steelers And Anthony Chickillo 

To reiterate, the Steelers depth at outside linebacker could be severely lacking if the veteran Arthur Moats decides to ply his trade elsewhere. At the end of the day, the Steelers really just need bodies at the position. Perhaps that’s not  a ringing endorsement for Anthony Chickillo, but he does know the Steelers system, and he has seen an awful lot of playing time over the past two seasons.

  • Besides that, Anthony Chickillo has been a regular on special teams, a unit that’s often overlooked during the free-agency period, as fans are more focused on the big names on offense and defense.

Anthony Chickillo might just be a backup outside linebacker, but he’s an extremely competent backup, and the Steelers may not be looking for much more than that for 2018.

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Steelers Resign Sean Spence in Wake of Shazier, Matakevich Injuries

Injuries to Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich have forced the Pittsburgh Steelers to resign Sean Spence.

The Steelers arrived a Paul Brown Stadium for their 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals with four healthy inside linebackers but left with only two.

In a move that has been rumored for over a day saw Pittsburgh Steelers resign Sean Spence, the inside linebacker whom they drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, kept on injured reserve during both the 2012 and 2013 campaign and who split time as a starter with Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams during 2014 and 2015.

Sean Spence, Steelers vs Texans, Steelers resign Sean Spence

Sean Spence after securing a key fumble recovery in the Steelers 2014 win over the Houston Texans. Photo Credit: SteelersWire

When he finally returned to full health, Sean Spence did everything the Pittsburgh Steelers asked of him, as he started 13 games over two seasons, where he record 2 sacks, over 60 tackles and a key fumble recovery in a game against the Houston Texans.

  • Facing a crowded inside linebacking depth chart, Sean Spence rejoined Dick LeBeau during the 2016 off season.

However, despite the his familiarity with the Dick LeBeau’s system, Spence only managed to start six games for the Titans, although he appeared in 15 contests where he recorded 3 more sacks, defensed 3 passes and forced a fumble.

During the 2017 off season, Dale Lolley mentioned that the Steelers might be intersted in bringing Spence back as a backup, but Spence instead signed with the Indianapolis Colts. However, Spence only saw action in 3 games with the Colts and found himself on the waiver wire back in October.

It is unknown whether Sean Spence will have a chance to start in place of L.J. Fort or, should his health allow Tyler Matakevich, but his presence does free the Steelers from the need of having to prep Arthur Moats, who has inside linebacking experience, to do emergency duty there.

While the fact that Sean Spence was still available in early December should raise a yellow caution flag, the Steelers know him well and Sean Spence knows Keith Butler and Jerry Olsavsky.

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Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Linebacker: Remembering Mike Merriweathers Steelers Career

Like most Pittsburgh Steelers fans who were teenagers in the mid-to-late 80’s, I wanted my very own jersey.

Of course, the problem with that time in Steelers history, is they were pretty awful. Less than a decade after guys like Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were doing things on the turf of old Three Rivers Stadium that would forever make them immortals, Pittsburgh’s professional football roster was full of mere mortals, especially during a stretch from 1985-1988, when the Steelers went a combined 26-37 and didn’t make the playoffs once.

  • Still, though, I wanted my own jersey, which, as a 15-year old back in ’87, became my big Christmas present.

So, who did I pick?

Receiver Louis Lipps, the 1984 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowler, was the obvious choice. Believe it or not, kicker Gary Anderson, by that point, also a two-time Pro Bowl player, would have been a pretty decent choice (told you the roster was filled with mere mortals in those days).

Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, John Elway, Steelers vs Broncos 1984, Mike Merriweather Steelers career

Mike Merriweather and Edmund Nelson close in on John Elway. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

But while Louis Lipps and Gary Anderson were certainly some of the very few stars  for the Steelers of that era, perhaps the most shining one was outside linebacker Mike Merriweather

A third round pick out of the University of Pacific in  the 1982 NFL Draft, Mike Merriweather ascended to the top of the depth chart of Pittsburgh’s transitioning defense in 1983, starting 16 games, but only recording a half a sack.

The following season, however, Mike Merriweather would burst onto the NFL scene in a big way, as he totaled 15 sacks (a team record that stood for 24 years until fellow outside linebacker James Harrison broke it by one in 2008 – although Kevin Greene did briefly tie the record in 1994 only to see the sack negated on a penalty) and made his first Pro Bowl.

Mike Merriweather couldn’t duplicate his ’84 sack barrage in subsequent years, recording a combined 15.5 between ’85-’87, but he still performed at a high enough level to make two more Pro Bowls. And in 1987, his first-team All Pro honor matched the ones he received in 1984 and 1985.

With those years as a backdrop, it was easy to see why I decided to go with MIke Merriweather’s No. 57 jersey for my Christmas present for the 1987 holiday season.

  • I enjoyed my jersey, wearing it to school once a week throughout the remainder of my freshman year.

Tenth grade was a different story. I still wore the jersey to school, but I received mocking comments such as, “Where’s your boy, Merriweather?”

Sadly, while the Steelers were enduring a 5-11 season in 1988 (their worst record since 1969), Mike Merriweather wasn’t around to help, as a contract dispute with the team led to a season-long holdout.

Since true free-agency didn’t exist in those days, Mike Merriweather didn’t have much leverage. It also didn’t help that Merriweather had a signed contract. The Steelers didn’t contract hold outs. Dan Rooney didn’t do it for Franco Harris in 1983, he didn’t do it for Hines Ward in 2005 and he wasn’t going to do it for Merriweather in 1988.

Mike Merriweather, Robin Cole, David Little, Bryan Hinkle, Steelers linebackers 1980's, Mike Merriweather's Steelers Career

Like his counterparts of the 80’s, No. 57 Mike Merriweather’s chief sin was to merely good instead of great. Photo via: Ciudaddeacero.com

Unfortunately for players of that era like Merriweather, who was clearly capable of performing at an elite level, their only choice was to suck it up and play for whatever compensation their teams thought they deserved.

With neither side willing to budge from their position, the Steelers shipped Merriweather to the Vikings in the even of the 1989 NFL Draft in-exchange for their first round pick (24th, overall).

  • That pick became Tom Ricketts, an offensive tackle from the University of Pittsburgh, who only lasted three seasons with the Steelers.

Mike Merriweather never matched his prolific years in Pittsburgh, as he played a few seasons with the Vikings before finishing his career with both the Packers and Jets in 1993.Who knows what may have happened if Merriweather and the Steelers would have reached a financial agreement in ’88?

  • Maybe he would have stuck around long enough to be a part of Bill Cowher‘s early playoff teams of the 1990’s.

That’s a tantalizing possibility, but Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola once chided a fan who complained about the Steelers unwilingness to pay Merriweather by reminding them that his absence in 1988 allowed Chuck Noll and Tony Dungy to get Greg Lloyd on the field. And for as good as Merriweather was, Lloyd was beter.

We do know many great outside linebackers have played for the Steelers since–including Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley and Harrison.

Yes, the Steelers lineage at outside linebacker is exceptional (let’s not forget about Jack Ham and Andy Russell), but Mike Merriweather was a good one, too.

He was just a bad choice for a football jersey.

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Steelers Draft TJ Watt in 1st Round of 2017 NFL Draft. Is He “Unicorn” 3-4 OLB Pittsburgh Seeks?

While it took an inordinate amount of time, especially for those of us who live 1 hour ahead of Eastern time, but Pittsburgh got its man in the 2017 NFL Draft as the 30th pick saw the Steelers draft T.J. Watt, Outside Linebacker out of Wisconsin.

T.J. Watt is of course the younger brother of the Houston Texan’s JJ Watt.

Steelers draft TJ Watt, Mike Tomlin, TJ Watt, Art Rooney II, Steelers 2017 1st Round Draft

Mike Tomlin, with T.J. Watt and Art Rooney II

When asked about coming to Pittsburgh Watt offered this:

The Steelers are a hardworking organization that does it the right way. They have a great bond within the locker room and with the coaches as well. I am really looking forward to it. It’s a great fit for me. It will be a great transition coming from Wisconsin to here and that is why I am so excited.

Based on TJ Watt’s highlights from his junior year at Wisconsin, the Steelers are excited too.

You can be forgiven if you conclude that T.J. Watt brings an extensive resume to Pittsburgh. He doesn’t. After sitting out his Red Shirt Freshman year at tight end, he moved to defense, and then had difficulty making the transition to defense, only playing 8 games as a sophomore.

  • However, his junior year was impressive, as he recorded 11 sacks, 15.5 tackles for a loss, and made 63 tackles with one interception.

However, that experience didn’t deter the Steelers as Mike Tomlin explained:

T.J. is a rock solid young man who has a lot of upside. He doesn’t have a lot of experience at the position, but at the same time we saw some things that were exciting to us. His hand usage in particular for a guy with his short resume at the position was exciting. His production speaks for itself. He’s just a quality guy and a quality pick for us.

Although several names mocked to the Steelers were gone by the time they picked 30th, In picking Watt, the Steelers passed on an number of cornerbacks who will probably no longer be there late in the second round.

Is T.J. Watt the “Unicorn” OLB the Steelers have Been Seeking?

While outside linebacker, or “Edge Rusher” was seen as a major Steelers need heading into the draft, a strong sentiment existed that favored the Steelers drafting secondary first (pun intended), given edge rushers are not as effective against quick release quarterbacks.

This is nothing new.

Prior to the Steelers picking Cameron Heyward with their first round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Tim Gleason, aka “Mary Rose” from Behind the Steel Curtain lobbied for the Steelers to take a cornerback, arguing that “Tom Brady will get rid of the ball before Cameron Heyward can even touch him.”

  • What has changed, however, is that the Steelers play in their base 3-4 defense less and less frequently.

That has led some writers, such as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, to suggest that the Steelers abandon their search for a quality 3-4 linebacker, who can rush the passer, set the edge against the run, AND drop into coverage and focus on getting a player who more closely matches a 4-3 defensive end.

However, a few days before the draft, Wexell’s colleague at Steel City Insider, Matt C. Steel rated T.J. Watt as 3rd best overall fit for the Steelers in the draft explaining:

This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker. Watt still has the frame to put on another 10-15 pounds, and with only one year of playing defense, his upside is tremendous. The knee injuries prevent me from putting him first on this list, but I’m hearing the Lions, Cowboys, and Packers are all showing heavy interest, so I’d be surprised if he makes it to pick 30.

T.J. Watt himself seems to be aware that he’s being brought in Pittsburgh to play just that role, as he told Jim Wexell:

That’s something I’ve been doing at Wisconin [sic] these past two years and I think that’s why I translate so well to the (Steelers) defense. I’ve shown on film I can play a 3-technique if I really have to. I can set the edge really good, and I can get after the passer. I think that’s ultimately what makes a really good football player and I think having great players around me is what’s going to make us a great team.

And so it is. Four years ago the Steelers went down this route in their first attempt to replace James Harrison when they drafted Jarvisy Jones with the 13th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. As we know, the Jarvis Jones experiment failed miserably.

  • Jarvis Jones had a great college track record, but poor mesaurables.

In contrast, T.J. Watt seems has measurables but not a lot of college production. So the Steelers are taking the opposite tact in trying to replace a man who is irreplaceable. Let’s hope they have better luck.

Welcome to Steelers Nation, T.J. Watt.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker: High-Moderate

The narrative of the Steelers history at outside linebacker since Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 1980’s might begin:

  • Many are called, few fail, but when they do the fail mightily.

For over two generations, the men who have manned the Steelers outside linebacker slots have inspired the imagination as the likes of Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, and Joey Porter have terrorized opposing quarterbacks.

To Dick Haley, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s credit, the Steelers have had far more successes at outside linebacker than frustrations.

  • But when the Steelers have wiffed on an OLB pick, they’ve wiffed badly.

Think Alonzo Jackson and Jarvis Jones. They’ve been very few “Tweeners” in this group, save perhaps for Carlos Emmons and perhaps Jason Worilds.

Entering the 2017 NFL Draft, it is no secret the Steelers are looking to add an edge rushing outside linebacker to their team, the only question is how soon will they do it.

James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Outside Linebacker

James Harrison and Bud Dupree at Steelers OTAs. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports via Stillcurtain

Steelers Depth Chart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

At this point in his career, the only question about James Harrison is how long he can stay a step ahead of Father Time. James Harrison was supposed to be done in after 2012. He went as far as to retire in 2014, only to be suiting up again less than a month later. That was supposed to be his swan song, but Harrison was back in 2015 and again in 2016.

After the Steelers demoralizing loss the Dallas Cowboys, Mike Tomlin reinserted James Harrison into the starting lineup.

  • The Steelers didn’t lose another game until the AFC Championship, and those two facts most certainly are not coincidental.

Another player who perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for the Steelers strong finish to 2016 is the man starting opposite James Harrison, Bud Dupree. The Steelers of course drafted Bud Dupree in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Dupree started strong, but finished slow, and then missed the first half of 2016 with a groin injury.

Dupree got his first start of the season against the Bills, and registered 2.5 sacks. He followed that effort up with a sack on Christmas against Baltimore, and another in the season closer against Cleveland. He also split a sack with James Harrison in the AFC divisional playoff win over the Dolphins.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind James Harrison and Bud Dupree the Steelers have Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo who split time in Dupree’s absence as starters in 2016.

When the Steelers signed Arthur Moats in 2014 he looked to be little more than a player the Steelers were taking a flyer on but, by the Steelers count, Moats has started 25 games over the past few years, and recorded 11 and half sacks.

  • Those clearly aren’t the types of numbers that get you to the Pro Bowl, let alone Canton, but they’re more than respectable given his pedigree.

The Steelers took Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft and Chickillo has already exceeded the expectations for someone picked so late. The Steelers list Chickillo as starting 7 games in 2016 during which he recorded 2.5 sacks, which is more than Jarvis Jones ever accomplished in a single season.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Outside Linebacker

The Steelers face two problems at outside linebacker.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs outside linebacker

Remember that Mike Tomlin explained his decision to start James Harrison by asking, “What are we saving him for?” While the move signaled the Steelers decision to officially call the Jarvis Jones experiment a failure, it also implied that James Harrison needed to be saved.

And he does.

James Harrison has shown that he can continue to play dominating football, but it is also clear that he can’t do it four quarters a game for 16 games. And unfortunately, both Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo play on the opposite side of James Harrison.

So the Steelers need to find and outside linebacker who they can not only bring along for the future, but they also need someone who can play well enough to get significant snaps starting on opening day.

Given that reality, the Steelers 2017 draft need at outside linebacker must be considered High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker: Moderate

What a machine. What a consistent force and performer in the middle of the Steelers defense for 10 glorious seasons.

I’m referring, of course, to inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons who became head coach Mike Tomlin’s first draft choice, when the Steelers selected him out of Florida State with the 15th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Lawrence Timmons started slowly as he learned legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau‘s sophisticated defense, but the athleticism, the explosiveness, they were on display right from the very start.

After serving an apprenticeship under veterans James Farrior and Larry Foote, Lawerence Timmons moved to the  top of the depth chart in his third season and started 124 games between 2009-2016–including a very durable 96-straight over his final six seasons in Pittsburgh.

After the 2016 campaign, Lawrence Timmons became a free-agent and inked a two-year deal with the Dolphins in March, leaving the Steelers with a hole at one of the inside linebacker spots…sort of. Yes, there’s a “Sort of” attached to that statement and how the Steelers define “sort of” will impact their plans for inside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Vince Williams, Ryan Shazier, Steelers 2017 draft needs inside linebacker

Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams celebrate a turnover. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via SportsnetCA

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters

Speaking of athleticism and explosiveness, Ryan Shazier, arguably the Steelers best player on defense, has both in bunches.

A first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Shazier was thrust into the starter’s role right from the beginning, thanks to the team’s transition period on defense from the veteran group that helped win two Super Bowls in the previous decade to the younger version that sorely needed a “splashy” play-maker. Ryan Shazier proved to be that early-on, as he intercepted a pass and made several impressive tackles during his rookie home debut in a preseason game at Heinz Field against the Bills.

  • Unfortunately for Ryan Shazier and the Steelers, Shazier missed seven games in 2014 due to a sprained knee.

Over the past two seasons, Ryan Shazier has grown into his role of the spectacular play-maker and best player on the defense. Two years ago, Ryan Shazier was the best player on the field, recovering a fumble and literally saving Pittsburgh’s season, when he stripped running back Jeremy Hill of the football in the waning moments of a come-from-behind victory over the Bengals in an AFC Wild Card game.

  • Last season, as the Steelers marched all the way to the AFC Championship game, Ryan Shazier recorded 55 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, as he made his first Pro Bowl.

So, who will take Lawerence Timmons’ job and play alongside Ryan Shazier at the other inside linebacker spot? After inking a two-year contract-extension through the 2018 season, Vince Williams, the 2013 sixth round pick out of Florida State, figures to be the heir apparent to Timmons.

Truth be told, Vince Williams appeared to be destined for a future starter’s role, even before the start of the 2016 season. With Lawrence Timmons lame-duck status and declining play in recent years, Vince Williams’ new deal, which he signed before the start of the regular season, seemed like a proactive move by the organization.

When Ryan Shazier missed four games with a knee injury early in 2016, Vince Williams performed so well in his absence–including a combined 25 tackles in back-to-back victories over the Chiefs and Jets–many wondered if Ryan Shazier would be able to reclaim his starting spot.

Surprisingly, however, Lawrence Timmons stepped up his play so much down-the-stretch, as Pittsburgh won nine-straight games, the idea of keeping the Law Dog around for at least another season began to pick up steam. But that talk soon vanished early in free-agency, when Lawrence Timmons jumped to Miami for $11 million in guaranteed money.

With Lawrence Timmons now a former Steeler, the original sentiment of Vince Williams succeeding him at inside linebacker seems to be the plan heading into 2017.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups 

Behind Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, there’s a little promise but mostly just depth.

In Tyler Matakevich, Pittsburgh’s seventh round pick out of Temple a year ago, the team has a potential tackling machine (493 tackles in college).

  • The key word in that last sentence is “potential,” because Tyler Matakevich certainly didn’t prove much a year year ago, while playing mostly on special teams.

Rounding on the backups are L.J. Fort, a journeyman out of Northern Iowa who appeared in 14 games last season but only recorded two tackles; and Steven Johnson, a veteran the Steelers signed as a free-agent a year ago who has only started seven games in his NFL career.

Although he’s played exclusive on the outside for the Steelers, reserve OLB Arthur Moats also has experience playing on the inside and could serve as an emergency backup in a pintch.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker

Pittsburgh did add depth on defense during the free-agency period, but not at the inside linebacker spot (although not for lack of trying, if press reports are accurate).Steelers 2017 Draft Needs inside linebacker

Therefore, with Ryan Shazier’s propensity for injuries early in his NFL career–he’s missed 14 of a possible 48 games over three years–and with Vince Williams’s athleticism not being quite on par with what Lawrence Timmons provided for a decade, selecting an inside linebacker in the first few rounds certainly wouldn’t be out of he question for the Steelers.

  • And what happens when/if either Vince Williams or Ryan Shazier gets injured, and the Steelers are forced to go with unproven and/or less talented players to fill the starting role?

Having Vince Williams was a luxury a year ago, but unless someone like Tyler Matakevich makes that all-important first to second year leap, the Steelers might not have that same luxury in 2017 unless they hit on a player in the draft.

Reuben Foster, a top 10 prospect out of Alabama, figures to be long gone by the time the Steelers spot comes up at 30. But some possible names to keep an eye on are Haasan Reddick out of Temple, who is projected to go in the first or second round; and Jarrad Davis from Florida, who also grades out as either a first or second round pick.

  • Finally, while Pittsburgh does have two players slated to start at the inside linebacker spot, the bottom line is the team could always use another play-maker on defense–regardless of what position he plays.

If that player happens to be an inside linebacker and his value coincides with where the Steelers happen to be drafting, it would probably be a wise choice. Given the state of their starters and backups, the Pittsburgh Steelers need at inside linebacker going into the 2017 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

 

 

 

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