T.J. Watt. Cam Heyward. Minkah Fitzpatrick. All three are bonafide superstars, and all three immediately come to mind when considering the Steelers’ formidable defense.
The aforementioned trio is far from the only impactful players on D. Alex Highsmith burst onto the scene in his third year with 14.5 sacks. Terrell Edmunds served as a key chess piece, whether stopping runs at the line of scrimmage, generating pressure or playing coverage at the back-end. Cam Sutton emerged as a playmaker, notching three interceptions and posting a 69.9 passer rating allowed — the seventh-lowest in the NFL among defensive backs to play 900+ snaps.
And yet, one player has remained notably under-recognized: Larry Ogunjobi.
When deliberating what the Steelers should do regarding their upcoming free agents, fans and analysts alike debate the merit in returning Edmunds and Sutton, not to mention Devin Bush, Derek Watt and Robert Spillane. However, little chatter has emerged about retaining Ogunjobi, a fallacy that doesn’t align with both his production and team needs.
Despite dealing with a glut of injuries all season, Ogunjobi tallied 30 pressures in his first season in Pittsburgh, tied for 36th in the league among defensive linemen. Collectively, Ogunjobi has collected 30 or more pressures in four of the last five seasons. Consider some of the names that have also accomplished that feat: Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave, DeForest Buckner, etc. Although he posted only 1.5 sacks, Ogunjobi had 7.5 a season ago with the Bengals on only 11 more pressures, meaning his sack production should theoretically have been higher.
Beyond just the pass game, Ogunjobi was impactful in other facets. The veteran amassed seven tackles for loss, fourth on the team, plus 23 stops.
When working in tandem with Heyward, Ogunjobi helped form a defensive line duo that was largely disruptive game in and game out. There’s little reason not to want to maintain that going into 2023, especially with major needs at nose tackle and DL depth — more on that in a bit.
It’s not only Ogunjobi’s production that’s warranted attention. Ogunjobi has played for three teams in the AFC North but is only 28. On top of that, the 6-foot-4 DL has taken part in 47 combined games the last three campaigns and has suited up for at least 63% of defensive snaps in every year since 2018. Coming off a major foot injury in the 2021 postseason, Ogunjobi has proven to be durable and noteworthy with a glut of experience.
Contractually, too, returning Ogunjobi is sensible. Though Ogunjobi had initially agreed to a three-year, $40.5 million deal with the Bears last March, the framework fell through due to a failed physical. Instead, Kevin Colbert swooped in to offer Ogunjobi a one-year deal worth $8M.
According to Spotrac, Ogunjobi’s market value is two years for roughly $7 million. If anything, that may be a bargain for a player of his caliber. A contract of two years and $14 million may be more realistic; nevertheless, Ogunjobi should not command nearly as much as Chicago offered, due in part to flying under the radar plus a strong free agent DL class.
At the moment, Pittsburgh’s projected defensive line looks like this: Heyward, Montravius Adams, DeMarvin Leal. With Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley and Tyson Alualu all slated to hit the open market, the team is in need of immediate production and a number of bodies. Sure, Leal showed flashes, but integrating Ogunjobi only creates a more solidified defensive foundation.
In fact, without keeping Ogunjobi, Pittsburgh will very likely be handicapped into drafting a defensive lineman early — at either Pick 17 or 32. DL could very well be in play at those spots regardless — and the Steelers must reinforce their primary three D-linemen, especially the backup unit — but it becomes that much more of a dire need if Ogunjobi departs.
Options like Hargrave, Daron Payne, Zach Allen and Fletcher Cox are appealing but likely wouldn’t be cheap. Likewise, swinging a trade for Grover Stewart or Ed Oliver should not be counted on. And, I hate to break it to you, but J.J. Watt isn’t going to unretire — not even to play with his two brothers.
No, he isn’t the flashiest or most household name available. But, Larry Ogunjobi provides a major need for the Steelers: standout defensive line play in both the run and the pass, not to mention youth and likely a smaller cap hit. Pittsburgh has no shortage of crucial free agents, but ensuring Ogunjobi is back in the Steel City must be one of the team’s top priorities.