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2021 Steelers Roster Outlook: Outside Linebackers

With only two outside linebackers on the roster, the Steelers have spots to fill.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

This is the second part of my look at the roster heading into the 2021 free agency period, if you missed the first part, feel free to click the link below.

The Defensive Line

Outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers is a great position to play. The defensive line duo of Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward create pressure up the middle, and keep quarterbacks from escaping the rush from the outside, and Keith Butler’s schemes are designed to prevent teams from double teaming their edge rushers. And that scheme works, works well enough that T.J. Watt falls in the middle of the pack in the rate of double teams he faced the last two seasons despite leading the NFL in sacks, QB hits, and tackles for a loss in those years.

Bud Dupree is no longer under contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that breaks up a very fruitful pairing of Bud Dupree with Keith Butler’s pass rush scheme. Since 2015, every season the Steelers have averaged at least 3 sacks per game when Bud Dupree is playing, and in every season that he has missed multiple games, they have failed to average 3 sacks a game. That includes 2020, when a pass rush led by Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith recorded 15 sacks in the final 6 games of the season (2.5 per game) after the team recorded 41 over the first 11 games (3.7 per game).

It will be interesting to see how the Steelers pass rush performs with Bud Dupree no longer on the team, and how Dupree’s new team fares, because from 2015 to 2020, no player correlates to team sacks like Bud Dupree on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Let’s look at the players still on the team.

T.J. Watt: A 2-time defensive player of the year candidate, and the player with by far the most plays made in opponent’s backfields over the last two seasons. He’s an elite finisher, a football player with a knack for making big plays, and he plays in a defense that is better at keeping him free to make those plays than any other team could. He is of course a fantastic pass rusher, but he also leads the NFL in tackles for a loss because he’s incredible at backside pursuit. It makes me laugh every time I see a team leave T.J. Watt unblocked because they are running away from him, only to have Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree clog the run lanes and T.J. Watt drag down the runner from behind. You’d think they’d learn, but the stats don’t lie.

The players around him and the scheme he is in likely inflates his value a little, at the expense of a player like Cameron Heyward that is his equal on the field, but not even close in stats. That said, I’m not bashing T.J. Watt, he’s one of the best edge rushers in the NFL and a truly elite defender, he’s just not the only player on the Steelers that fits that description. His ridiculous stats are a product of his own talent and work ethic as well as the work of the players around him. Football truly is a team sport, that’s really all I’m saying here.

Alex Highsmith: The Steelers 2020 3rd round pick showed incredible potential in 2020, first as a rotational edge defender, and then as a starter once Bud Dupree went down. He has a variety of pass rush moves, and he was strong in run defense. While he was playing the drop off in the defense when Dupree went down was noticeable, but largely in the form of the pass rush failing to contain quarterbacks in the pocket (see week 15 and Ryan Finley for your best evidence of that). Highsmith showed he was ahead of the usual rookie curve, and that puts the Steelers in a position where moving on from Bud Dupree isn’t nearly as bad a situation as it would have been without him.

Tegray Scales: Undrafted in 2018, Scales was in camp with the Rams and on the Colts practice squad for stints in 2018, the Steelers signed him to a futures contract after that season, and after they waived him at the end of camp in 2019, he played in the XFL, recording 1 sack and 4 tackles for a loss in 5 games. The Steelers brought him back to their practice squad this past November, and he was on the active roster until he was replaced by Cassius Marsh. he played 3 snaps on defense and 25 snaps on special teams in the 4 games he was active, recording no stats.

That’s it.

The Steelers have three outside linebackers under contract for 2021, only two that have played even a handful of snaps.

While T.J. Watt is a known commodity as one of the best in the NFL at his job, Alex Highsmith is a second year player that showed promise but only recorded 2 sacks and 6 QB hits in his 309 snaps, compare that to Bud Dupree’s 8 sacks and 15 QB hits in 608 snaps, almost three times the production in just under twice the snaps, and you can see why finding a good third edge defender is a priority this season, and a fourth outside linebacker that will be a main special teams player and depth piece will also need to be signed.

Free Agency options

The Steelers will likely be in the market for more experienced outside linebacker to be the primary rotational player on the edge, with Highsmith entering his second season, it is unlikely the Steelers would want his backup to be a rookie, and with T.J. Watt being someone the Steelers seem determined to sign, it wouldn’t make sense to use a higher draft pick on someone that would spend almost their entire rookie contract as a backup.

Finding outside linebackers in free agency isn’t the easiest task, so most of their options already have ties to the organization.

Bud Dupree: Of course, one of the options is to bring back Bud Dupree. I’m a huge Dupree fan, he’s one of my favorite players to watch film of, and I would love to see him play for the Steelers for the rest of his career, but it doesn’t make sense for him to stay. The Steelers have a young player in Highsmith who deserves substantial play time already, and the growth from first to second year should make it even harder to put him on the bench. By the same token, Dupree deserves a big payday and to be a main starter on an NFL team, not a rotational player. And neither is kicking T.J. Watt off the field. So while it would be awesome to keep Watt and Dupree as a long-term duo like we’ve had with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, it just doesn’t make sense.

If the Steelers do sign Bud Dupree, my immediate thought would be they don’t think T.J. Watt is worth the ridiculous salary he is going to get, and plan on moving on from him. I doubt that is the case, just throwing that out there. There’s no way you plan on keeping Dupree, Watt and Highsmith on the same team for the next three years.

J.J. Watt: I covered Watt a bit in the defensive line outlook, the appeal to Watt is he would fill out rotations as a defensive end and as an edge rusher. Essentially making Highsmith the outside linebacker in 3-4 looks (where he would be a defensive end) and taking over the edge rusher spot across from his brother in 4-man fronts. Lessening the work load of any depth outside linebackers and defensive lineman. Reports have come out saying the Steelers are out of the running, but Watt himself recently stated that he and his agent haven’t talked to anyone about his decision process, so any statements about his favored or least likely destinations are speculation at this point.

Olasunkanmi Adeniyi: Adeniyi started the 2020 season in an even rotation of snaps with Alex Highsmith, but it didn’t take long for Highsmith to take the majority of his defensive snaps and relegate Adeniyi to being a primary special teams player. Adeniyi ended the season with 145 snaps played on defense, and in the wild card loss to Cleveland played only 9 snaps while Cassius Marsh played 46. If he was resigned, it would be more likely to be a special teams and #4 outside linebacker role, not the primary rotational guy.

Cassius Marsh: Marsh was a frequent target of the Browns offense in the Wild Card game, but outside of that he looked solid on special teams, and his presence in that playoff game seemed to be based on his ability to play in coverage, something the Steelers did not trust Adeniyi to do. Marsh was pretty solid in coverage, the problem was the Browns ran at him consistently and had good success doing so. Marsh is another candidate for a #4 outside linebacker role for the Steelers in 2021.

Anthony Chickillo: Chickillo was signed to a 2 year, 8 million dollar deal before the 2019 season, only to be released after the season. He signed with the Saints, ended up on their practice squad and was signed off of that to the Broncos where he played 154 defensive snaps in 11 games. He did record a sack, meaning he has at least a half a sack each of the last 5 seasons, something Adeniyi and Marsh have not done.

Vince Biegel: Biegel is a fascinating option to me. He was drafted in the 4th round in 2017 by the Packers, played nine games for them as a rookie before being one of the final cuts heading into his second season. The Saints signed him the next day and made him a primary special teams player on their team. When the Dolphins were tearing their team apart in 2019, they traded Kiko Alonso to the Saints for Vince Biegel and Biegel was a major special teams player for the dolphins and played over 50% of defensive snaps. He was a very solid player for the Dolphins in 2019, with 2.5 sacks, and a 9% pressure rate (about 1% less than Dupree’s rate for his career). He dropped into coverage a good bit as well, but only gave up 3 yards on 4 targets. He was a priority retention for the Dolphins as a restricted free agent that offseason.

He missed the 2020 season with an ACL tear, and his injury history is a serious concern. It might also mean he will be a relatively cheap option to bring in as a rotational piece to play with his college teammate T.J. Watt.

The only higher profile signing I could see the Steelers making would be bringing back Dupree or signing J.J. Watt. That makes a player like Chickillo or Biegel the likely kind of signing, as they would be cheap but offer potentially more value than their cost.

Draft options

I can’t see a higher draft pick being used here, I would not be surprised to see a late pick, as linebacker is one of the most special teams oriented picks, but the Steelers need real depth at the position, not just potential depth. I expect them to fill that need before the draft.

If the Steelers do go for an edge rusher, look for a higher end athlete that is a project to be taken late, someone that can play special teams right away with the potential to grow into the primary rotational role in the future. I don’t have any names to suggest, and won’t until we get data on the athletic testing (this is one position the Steelers do pay attention to the testing numbers). If you have any late round sleepers you think I should check out, let me know. The Steelers very often fill the bottom of their outside linebacker depth with undrafted free agents, and that is another likely possibility this season.