Even knowing that they only had Jason Worilds on a transition tag and projected to lose him the following year, and only signed free agent Arthur Moats to a one-year, veteran-minimum contract, the Pittsburgh Steelers entirely ignored the outside linebacker position in the 2014 NFL Draft, and only carried three into the season.
That changed, of course, when Jarvis Jones got injured, and they added James Harrison to the mix, with a developmental project on the practice squad. But after last season, with Jones’ injury-deterred campaign, Worilds’ retirement, and Harrison’s age, the Steelers knew that the position was once again a high priority, and they used their first-round pick to take Bud Dupree.
But they weren’t finished there, as they added another outside linebacker prospect in the sixth round with measurables similar to Dupree at 6’3” and in excess of 260 lbs. Unlike Dupree, who was a college 3-4 outside linebacker, Anthony Chickillo played end with his hand on the ground, so he will be a conversion prospect, and will have to compete for a roster spot this year on special teams behind the top four.
Of the top four, outside linebackers coach, and former Steelers outside linebacker himself, Joey Porter suggested during his press conference for Chickillo that he envisions a four-man rotation at linebacker, presumably with Moats and the rookie Dupree on the left side and Jones and Harrison on the right.
Porter made it very clear that he doesn’t view Harrison, who will turn 37 on Monday, as a 60-snap guy anymore, and that he conveyed that message to his former understudy. The newly-minted position coach said that he sees Harrison as a 25-snap player and that he would like to keep his snaps down to around that number this season.
Porter is only 13 months older than Harrison, and also played outside linebacker in the Steelers’ system at a high level, so the young coach has a lot of direct experience that he can transfer to the veteran pass rusher’s situation from a personal standpoint.
The former Pro Bowler acknowledged his “hard-headed” playing mentality, believing that he could play 60 snaps a game every week, but said that “when I played my snaps should have been monitored”.
“I was in a different mindset and thought I could play every play”, he said of the twilight years of his playing career, which certainly sounded reminiscent of Harrison, who was playing 25 snaps off the couch and conditioned himself into starting-level snaps by the end of the 2014 season.
But the Steelers seem to want to handle Harrison as they did Brett Keisel last season. Though they know that he can still be a productive player, and is arguably even the more talented within the rotation at his spot, they believe that they can get the most out of him by limiting his snaps.
It’s why Cam Thomas started over Keisel last year, even though Keisel often wound up playing more snaps anyway. And as the feel of the game goes, it may very well be that Harrison finds himself logging an average in excess of 25 snaps per game. But the plan on paper is to keep his snap count down to a manageable level to make sure that he lasts the season, as per the orders of somebody who’s been there recently and now knows better than when he was in the same shoes.