It seems to be a rare occurrence that the Pittsburgh Steelers do not tender their restricted free agents. Terence Garvin is the most recent, this year, and may have come as a bit of a surprise, considering some of the players that they have tagged in recent years.
Will Johnson, for example, got the tag last year. In 2013, both Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman both received restricted free agent tags. Of course, part of the appeal of the tag is that their salary is not guaranteed if the player is released prior to the start of the season. That is what happened with Dwyer, though he was re-signed after one game due to injury need.
That the Steelers were not compelled to tag now unrestricted free agent inside linebacker Garvin—who, if I’m not mistaken, if signed elsewhere, would not factor into the compensatory formula next year—at a value of $1.671 million tells us that they don’t hold a significant value in retaining him.
The Steelers have depth at inside linebacker, of course. But what if that suddenly disappears overnight? Garvin is not their only free agent at the position. Sean Spence is as well, and as we heard last night, both of them are taking free agent visits with other teams. If the Steelers end up losing both of them, are they in trouble?
I’m not so sure. Obviously it would be highly beneficial if they are able to retain at least one of them. But I believe that the Steelers, and Danny Smith, are fond of L.J. Fort. Originally undrafted in 2012, he signed with the Browns and played in 16 games as a rookie, starting the opener due to injury, during which he recorded an interception, two passes defensed, and a sack.
After that game, he faded into a backup role, but he carved his teeth on special teams. The next year he did not make the Broncos’ final roster, but he spent some time with the Seahawks in 2014—as a fullback. After the Patriots released him in late August last year, the Steelers added him to their roster.
He quickly had an impact, registering seven tackles, a sack, and a pass defensed in three preseason games with the Steelers. In spite of the fact that they carried five inside linebackers on the roster, with nine in total, and another already on the practice squad, they chose to carry Fort on the practice squad as well as a 12th linebacker.
Not only that, he lasted the entire season on the practice squad before he was promoted to the 53-man roster after Roosevelt Nix went on injured reserve prior to the final regular season game, as a potential special teams replacement. While he spent the regular season finale and Wildcard game inactive, he did get a helmet for special teams purposes for the Divisional game.
If by some unfortunate turn the Steelers do end up losing both Garvin and Spence, I don’t believe they necessarily need to rush out and find another player. Aside from the fact that they already have Vince Williams as the third inside linebacker, I do believe the team is fond of Fort, and may have even factored into the decision not to tender Garvin.
Let’s not forget that during the 2013 season, the Steelers entered the year with Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote on his last legs, with essentially only the rookie Williams and journeyman-with-no-experience Kion Wilson as depth at inside linebacker, though Garvin saw a couple of snaps on defense late in the year. I don’t think that losing Spence and Garvin would necessarily cause the team to feel the need to rush out and insulate the inside linebacker position.