Steelers Turn To College OLBs As Price For Pass Rushers Rises

On Monday, I wrote about the Pittsburgh Steelers and the manner in which the value of the 3-4 scheme pass rusher has evolved over the course of the past decade or so. Whereas Pittsburgh was regularly able to find value from the third round and beyond with outside linebackers, this has not recently been the case.

During head coach Mike Tomlin’s tenure, he has thus far developed two starting outside linebackers that have achieved double-digit sacks during their career in LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds, both of whom were second-round draft picks who largely fit the profile of a tweener college 4-3 defensive end convert.

With the pass rushing position becoming ever more critical league-wide, and with the Steelers seemingly increasingly more deficient in this department, the team has had to turn to the top of the draft to look for their component pieces that can get after the quarterback.

In the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers used their 17th overall selection on Jarvis Jones, a college 3-4 outside linebacker who was highly productive in college on a talented defense that featured him as the playmaking chess piece.

We know generally how that story has played out over the course of the past two years, of course, with the Steelers still waiting on Jones to have the breakout season that garners more than two sacks. Obviously, his second season in the league was thrown off course by a significant wrist injury.

The Steelers posted a recent low of 33 sacks in 2014, their worst figure as a club since 1989. With Worilds retiring and James Harrison, now 37, booked for a rotational role, the front office added Bud Dupree in the first round with the 22nd overall selection.

Dupree, like Jones, was a college 3-4 outside linebacker, although his story is somewhat different. Unlike Jones, Dupree was the clear talent on his team, but he was not a featured playmaker, and his draft stock was built as much on ‘upside’ as it was production—more so, actually.

I do find it interesting, however, that both of the Steelers’ first-round draft picks at the outside linebacker position have come from among a group of pass rushers that were natural linebackers at the collegiate level, as opposed to the defensive ends that they have traditionally targeted for their scheme. It’s also fair to point out that the Steelers alluded to a desire to trade up for Dupree.

No doubt coincidence plays a significant role in these two players sharing this characteristic, but I can’t help but feel there is slightly more to it. With the Steelers feeling the urgency to use their most premium roster building tools on the pass rushing position, I feel that a newfound sense of risk aversion is also in play.

After the selections of both Jones and Dupree, Tomlin talked about having a “level of comfort” in the fact that they were naturally 3-4 outside linebackers and that it brought with the selection a reduced level of risk. With such a high value placed on a resource, you would naturally want to mitigate as many risks as possible, which is exactly what avoiding a conversion project does.

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