Steelers Free Agents: Outside Linebackers

Jason O. Watson-USA TODAY Sports

in which a whole slew of guys are perused from every angle, almost...

If you missed the first two articles in this series they can be found by clicking the links: Safety; Tight End

For today it is back to the defense, and I decided to address the position about which perhaps the most ink, digital or otherwise, has been spilled. As well it might be. I think this is the position the Steelers most need to get right, and also about which there are the most uncertainties, with the possible exception of left inside linebacker.

But before I jump into the stats, I noted when looking up something else on Steelers.com that Bob Labriola has been doing a series on the free agents. I decided not to look at these until I've already published my own article, just so I wouldn't be biased in any way. And frankly, although Labriola knows the team well, there are things he doesn't seem to know any more about than the rest of us, judging from the fact that he and Mike Prisuta voted Jack Bicknell Jr. possibly the best position coach on the team, the day before the Steelers cut him. So unless they were trying to make a sneaky public statement, (never a wise way to deal with your bosses) I have to conclude that neither of them was any more aware of Bicknell's fate than the rest of us. Which makes it all the more mystifying. I'm not complaining, mind—I don't think anyone in their right mind would trade Mike Munchak for Bicknell.

On to the list. The following guys are listed as free agents on Steelers.com:

Although Westerman didn't play much OLB for the Steelers, he has played enough to generate stats for his (many) other teams.

I suppose nobody cares that much about the small potatoes, but it seems to me it's useful to find out whether they are worth keeping on. And since I want to, as much as possible, look at trends, I've also thrown in the guy who will undoubtedly be known as one of the all-time great Steelers, James Harrison, and one who probably won't, Chris Carter.

When one is accustomed to greatness at this position, it is difficult to accept anything less. Let's look first at the Pro Football Focus overall rating and rankings for the past six seasons. (Some of the charts are a bit small, so if you wish to see a larger version you can do so by clicking on it.)

Pff_overall_medium

As usual I have expressed the rankings as negative numbers so the chart reads the usual way—higher is better. Note that for three years in a row, 2008 through 2010, both of the Steelers' principal outside linebackers were ranked in the top five in the league. (That would be among the players who played the majority of the snaps for their respective teams.) In fact, you may note the Steelers had the No.1 OLB in both 2008 and 2009.

In terms of the future, the most interesting line is that of Jason Worilds. Other than 2012, you can see he has made steady progress. This will be broken down into specifics below.

PFF divides linebackers according to scheme, so James Harrison's numbers for 2013 are as a 4-3 linebacker. The only real difference this makes is, the league average for 4-3 OLBs in 2013 was 1.61, as opposed to 4.55 for 3-4 OLBs, so Harrison's score would have looked more impressive against the 4-3 average. On the other hand, his ranking looks more impressive expressed as his place in the 4-3 backers. Had I inferred his ranking from his score as a 3-4 OLB he would have ranked below both LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds. I'm not entirely certain it is reasonable to cross platforms in this way, however.

What is clear is even though Harrison was thrust into a different scheme he still played at a high level of effectiveness. One may ask, would remaining with the Steelers in 2013 have ultimately been to the long-term benefit of the team? If he had, perhaps Jarvis Jones wouldn't have gotten nearly as many snaps, for one. And while Harrison's presence might have made the difference in the Steelers making the playoffs (and I find it hard to imagine he wouldn't have given the Steelers at least one additional win), I don't think this year's Steelers were going to beat Seattle, if they made it that far. But now I'm speculating far beyond any possible data...

So let's have a look at some specific areas of OLB responsibility and see how our guys did there. In the PFF "Signature Stats" they break down OLB play in four areas: Pass Rush Productivity, Run Stop Percentage, Tackling Efficiency, and Coverage. I've charted three of those—my feeling is the tackling bit is more or less covered in the other three stats. Let's look at Pass Rushing.

It is useful to know what percentage of a player's total snaps are spent in rushing the passer. It turns out to be a pretty interesting question, so here's a chart to make it easier to see:

Pass_rush___medium

Before we know how significant the number is, we have to know how many total snaps the guys played as well. For 2013 Chris Carter, Stevenson Sylvester, and Jamaal Westerman all played less than 100 snaps. All of the others except James Harrison (who is basically moot in terms of this discussion) played more than 500 snaps.

LaMarr Woodley played the fewest pass rush snaps (both by percentage and by actual number) of any season of his career, by a considerable margin in most cases. (I don't have the figures for 2007, his rookie season, so I don't know about that year.) He also spent less time in coverage.

As you might suspect, this means he was in run coverage a lot more than usual, and you would be correct—he played almost half his snaps in run coverage. In no other season did he play more than about a third of his snaps in run defense. I find myself wondering if this was yet another symptom of the problems Larry Foote's injury caused the defense, and the necessary rearrangements to deal with it. It seems unlikely he was put there by choice—he does not excel at run coverage, generally ranking in the lower half of the players with the majority of snaps. (Ironically, the only year he ranked in the top ten, 2011, he was tied for No. 9 with Jamaal Westerman, who was then with the Jets.)

Here's the numbers:

Run_medium

"Pass Rush Productivity" is a stat in which the pressure a player puts on the quarterback (with a weighting towards sacks) is measured. The higher the number, the more pressure a player is consistently getting.

One number which really caught my eye was the 2013 PRP for LaMarr Woodley. When he was rushing, he was doing so extremely effectively. In fact, as you can see, he surpassed easily any of his career numbers. And interestingly enough, although a lot was made of moving him to the right, he didn't play very many snaps there as a pass rusher. When he did, though, he was even more effective than he was from the left side. Although he didn't have any sacks from the right side (he had five of them from the left) he had, in 18 total snaps as a pass rusher from the right, a hit and three hurries, giving him a PRP on the right side of 16.7, as compared to his PRP from the left of 14.6. His ranking among the OLBs playing the majority of pass rush snaps was No. 4 in the league (out of 41 ranked OLBs.)

Jason Worilds, by contrast, was significantly more effective from the left side, and played most of his pass rush snaps there. (He ranked 11th.) You can't see his 2013 spot, as his PRP was exactly the same as James Harrison's. Since none of the others even got particularly close to the league average, we will ignore them. The only player for which this really matters, I suppose, is Jarvis Jones. Chris Carter is signed for next season, I presume, as he isn't a free agent, and Jones isn't going anywhere. Frankly, I think the experience he got in his rookie season will be invaluable going forward.

On to Run Stop %. This stat is the number of run stops a player makes, divided by the total number of snaps he is in run defense. It is really interesting to compare LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison as run stoppers. You can see my remarks about Woodley not be particularly good at it are fair—the only season he wasn't below the league average in this stat was 2011. Harrison, on the other hand, has always been way above the league average, and this season, in a 4-3, was the first time he was at the league average. And that is the 3-4 average—the average for a 4-3 OLB is two points below, so in fact Harrison still excelled in run stops, given the scheme.

But to return to the guys who were Steelers last season, one who really intrigues me is Stevenson Sylvester. He played about half of his total of 87 snaps last season (non-special-teams, that is) in run defense, and he was excellent. The other surprise on the chart is Jason Worilds, who was also well above average in this stat.

Now let's look at Coverage. The stat is simply the number of snaps a player was in coverage, divided by the number of receptions they allowed. Here's the chart:

Coverage_medium

I didn't put in the league average, but for 2013 it was 17.6. You can see both Woodley and Worilds were well above the average, and their rankings are on the chart on the right (right-way up as usual.)

One interesting item to consider is just how good Joey Porter was at coverage. In fact, in 2008 he was No. 1 in the league, and his figure of 41 coverage snaps/reception allowed blew everyone else out of the water. (The next closest guy had 17.8 snaps/reception—LaMarr Woodley was No. 3, with 17.7.) Hopefully he will be able to pass on some of this awesomeness!

And finally, something you don't find in PFF, but which is obviously a big concern—durability. Let's look first at how many snaps each player was on the field for, in total:

Snaps_medium

I find this chart strangely fascinating. It is interesting to see how LaMarr Woodley mirrors James Harrison in terms of snaps. And note, despite his various injuries, Woodley has only once played significantly less than 600 snaps. Will he ever play 900+ snaps again? In my completely uneducated opinion, no, unless he drops a significant amount of weight. Whether this would make him more or less effective I couldn't say. But given the nature of his injuries, I'm guessing his lower body can't carry the weight it is asked to and continue to function for long periods of time.

So if the Steelers were to release Woodley and sign Jason Worilds, would they be going from the frying pan into the fire? Let's have a look at the number and type of injuries, the ages at which they were incurred, and how many games they kept each player out.

Injury_hist

It was interesting to see this in black and white. Both players are considered to be injury prone. Jason Worilds has been in the league a much shorter time than LaMarr Woodley, obviously, and during his first four years in the league has missed more games than Woodley did. Does this bode ill for his future durability?

No one knows, of course. But the advantage I see is his injuries have been of the usual sort, mostly very short term, and not recurring. Conversely, it was sobering to me to see LaMarr Woodley missed a chunk of games early in his career with hamstring problems.

Time to cut to the chase and play "What if I were Kevin Colbert?"

First, the bit players. Jamaal Westerman was a stop-gap, signed when Woodley was placed on IR, and I don't imagine he will be retained, unless the coaching staff saw more out of him than is showing up on the charts. After all, the Bills cut him : (

As for Stevenson Sylvester, the Steelers cut him and then re-signed him. They know what they've got, and obviously they missed him when he was gone. If they can sign him to a small enough deal, I can't see why they wouldn't. The run-stoppage ability was heartening, even if it was only on display for less than 50 snaps.

Now, the biggies. If I were just looking at these charts, and didn't have to worry too much about the money, I would see if I could lure James Harrison back from the Bengals for a slightly bigger deal than the million or so they are paying him. I would then try to negotiate LaMarr Woodley to as favorable a contract as possible, using the reasoning, which he can scarcely refute, that I don't expect he will be able to play an entire season. I would make the contract incentive-laden. I would then sign Jason Worilds to as cap-friendly a contract as possible.

I would be operating under the assumption that I would be getting two high-quality OLBs for the price of three pretty good ones, (which means I'm obviously hoping I could get 32 games worth, plus the post-season, out of the three players, who hopefully would manage to be injured at different times.) If I was really lucky I might be getting three fantastic OLBs for the price of three pretty good ones.

I would rotate them, also working in Jarvis Jones, the way the Bengals do with their incredibly deep bench. (Or at least it has been in recent years.) I would also be operating under the assumption that I would quietly be easing Harrison and, to a lesser extent, Woodley, out, as Worilds proved himself capable of carrying a full-time load and Jarvis Jones got more comfortable (and hopefully, consequently, better.) I would put LaMarr Woodley into run coverage as seldom as possible, and James Harrison into pass coverage as little as possible.

My scheme would get tricky if the Steelers have to play an "up-tempo" offense, and in that case I would throw Jarvis Jones in to sink or swim and keep the old men on the sidelines as much as possible.

Feel free to shout me down, as this is probably entirely impractical, at least from the money standpoint. And of course if I'm quite sure I'm going to draft an OLB high this May that would put a different complexion on things. But what I would hope to do if my clever plan succeeds is draft a guy with potential but enough flaws to depress his draft stock, somewhere in the middle rounds, and hope the newly invigorated coaching staff could polish him up and have him ready for some game-time in 2015. After all, Joey Porter was a third round draft pick. Clark Haggans was a fifth round pick. James Harrison was a UDFA. A girl can dream, can't she?

I'd love to hear your thoughts. I know it probably sounds crazy, but I think it is crazy to in effect pay someone not to play. Which is what you are doing if you cut LaMarr Woodley. And you're close to doing it even if you wait until June, if I correctly understand the situation.

As to whether Jason Worilds will sign a cap-friendly contract with the Steelers, who knows? If he won't, it's back to the drawing board. But I sure would love to see the days of Steeler OLB dominance return...

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