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The state of the Steelers special teams: Pre-camp edition

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Predicting the main special teams contributors for 2020

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most surprising pieces of offseason news after the end of the 2019 season was Tyler Matakevich signing a two year contract worth more than 7 million dollars. Tyler Matakevich is a 4 year veteran inside linebacker that has averaged less than 3 defensive snaps a game.

The Bills paid Matakevich because he is a top special teams player with over 1200 snaps logged, and tied for the NFL lead in special teams tackles in 2019.

Tyler Matakevich isn’t the only major special teams contributor to leave the Steelers. Three of the top five special teams players by snap count are no longer on the roster, and 4 of the top 8.

The key losses:

Tyler Matakevich. 340 snaps, 80.19% (1st) Led team in tackles
Johnny Holton. 308 snaps, 72.64% (3rd) Excellent gunner
Anthony Chickillo. 219, 51.65% (5th) Injury ended his 3-year streak of being top 2 in snaps.
Kam Kelly. 174 snaps, 41.04% (8th) A very solid ST player.
Artie Burns. 121 snaps, 28.54% (13th) The other main gunner, was very good at it.
Roosevelt Nix. 42 snaps. Special teams captain, but was injured most of the season.

I want to look at who is returning, and what players are the most likely to step into those open roles going in order of 2019 snap counts. Since the long snapper, kicker, punter and main returners are all back, I’m not going to talk about them here.

Main returning contributors

Jordan Dangerfield. 308 snaps, 72.64% (2nd)

Jordan Dangerfield has been a solid special teams contributor for the Steelers for 3 of the 4 years he has been on the team (he missed the 2017 season). His special teams snap count has increased each of those years, and in 2020 Jordan Dangerfield is going to be the most tenured Steeler on the unit.

Olasunkanmi Adeniyi. 222 snaps, 52.36% (4th)

After a rookie season with no special teams snaps, Adeniyi worked heavily on his special teams play in the lead up to the 2019 season. Adeniyi was a consistent contributor throughout the season while also making it onto the field for 62 snaps on defense. With Anthony Chickillo gone, Adeniyi is in line to step into the primary backup at outside line backer, and an increased role on special teams.

Trey Edmunds. 210 snaps, 49.53% (6th)

Trey Edmunds was only active for 11 games, but played a very high percentage of the special teams snaps when he was active. The Steelers drafted another running back in 2020 to add to the 5 who return to the team that carried the ball in 2019. Trey Edmunds is toward the bottom of the depth chart, so making the team is not at all guaranteed. If he is going to make the roster, special teams will be a factor. Running backs saw increased special teams work with Roosevelt Nix out for most of the season, so while 3 show up on this list, Derek Watt will likely take a lot of the snaps the RBs filled in 2019.

Benny Snell Jr. 183 snaps, 43.16% (7th)

Benny Snell Jr. was not a consistent special teams player from week to week, indicating he was more of a top special teams reserve than a key player. Interestingly enough, the three games where Benny Snell produced the best, weeks 6, 12, and 17, were all games where he played on offense and special teams a lot. Snell ran 56 times in those three games, for 264 yards and 1 TD. That 4.7 yards per attempt is a lot better than the 3.1 yards per carry he gained the rest of the season. It could be coincidence, but it will be something interesting to look for in 2020.

Robert Spillane. 168 snaps, 39.62% (9th)

Robert Spillane was active for the last 8 games of the 2019 season, Spillane played an impressive amount of special teams snaps and recorded 11 special teams tackles in those games. Spillane actually led the Steelers in special teams tackles over the second half of the season. While many people saw Matakevich leave, the Steelers sign Derek Watt, and concluded that Watt would replace Matakevich, it is Robert Spillane that played the same role as Matakevich and recorded more tackles than Matakevich in the second half of last season. Expect Spillane to be toward the top of the team in both special teams snaps and tackles in 2020.

Cameron Sutton. 159 snaps, 37.50% (10th)

Sutton was another inconsistent contributor, largely filling in when other players weren’t available. Expect Sutton to keep the same role on special teams. He has kept steady snaps on both defense and special teams, and barring an injury to a corner back ahead of him, I expect him to stay in the same role again.

Ulysees Gilbert III. 150 snaps, 35.38% (11th)

Before injury ended his season, Ulysees Gilbert III was recording the most special teams snaps of any Steeler, and a higher percentage than any Steelers player had recorded since 2012 (that’s as far back as the snap count recording goes). With Mark Barron no longer on the team, there is an opportunity for Gilbert to earn snaps on defense (he didn’t log any defensive snaps in 2019). An increased role in the defense may lower his special teams focus, but expect Gilbert to be a major contributor on special teams in 2020 as he was a standout both on film and in snap counts, something that in the past has been a very good sign for Steeler linebackers.

Jaylen Samuels. 149 snaps, 35.14% (12th)

For the first 5 weeks of the 2019 season, Jaylen Samuels was a major special teams contributor. But after knee surgery caused him to miss 2 games, his special teams snaps plummeted. Trey Edmunds was placed on the roster at that time and would take over Samuels’ special teams duties for the rest of the season. Samuels, in my opinion, was behind only Trey Edmunds in his value on special teams. I expect him to be the main running back on special teams in 2020 if Edmunds doesn’t make the roster. While Samuels was limited in special teams snaps after his return, he ended up leading all Steelers running backs in offensive snaps, so that could be a reason for his lower usage on special teams.

Justin Layne. 93 snaps, 21.93% (16th)

Justin Layne was active for 10 games in 2019. In Week 6, with Artie Burns starting, Layne played 56% of special teams snaps. He would play over 50% again in Week 12, and get steady snaps through the end of the season with Artie Burns losing his active roster spot. Layne wasn’t a major contributor, but he is the only returning Steeler to have played the gunner role in special teams. Justin Layne and Burns were largely interchangeable as gunners, so expect Layne to be the main guy this season in that role.

New Additions

Derek Watt. 326 snaps, 79.32% (2nd on LA Chargers)

Derek Watt will be the Steelers FB and play a major role on special teams, replacing 2019 captain Roosevelt Nix in both regards.

Chase Claypool. rookie

Chase Claypool was a gunner in college and the Steelers have a serious need for gunners, so expect Chase Claypool to see time playing that role on Sundays in 2020.

Antoine Brooks Jr. rookie

The Steelers biggest non-gunner hole on special teams is likely replacing Kam Kelly who played 41.04% of special teams snaps in 2019. While Tyler Matakevich and Anthony Chickillo played more snaps, they also have replacements in the system that can step up into a bigger role. Antoine Brooks Jr. is a very likely candidate to get the first shot at the job.

Alex Highsmith. rookie

Highsmith will likely be asked to fill Olasunkanmi Adeniyi’s role from 2019 on special teams this coming season, being a pretty important piece that can step into a bigger role if someone is hurt.

With 6 departures and 4 additions, it may seem like the Steelers aren’t in a good spot on special teams, but Nix didn’t play much at all, and injury caused a lot of good players to miss a lot of time. Chickillo, Matakevich and Nix were 3 of the main special teams players for the Steelers since 2016, so their loss is not a small one. But with Ulysses Gilbert, Robert Spillane and Derek Watt, those gaps are already filled. The biggest question is the second gunner. The Steelers had 3 really good ones last season, but this year they have one. Chase Claypool will get his shot at the job, but if he isn’t up to snuff, the Steelers will need someone who can fill that role and that consideration should factor heavily in the roster decisions behind either the 5th wide receiver or a 6th cornerback spot.