it takes merely cursory knowledge of the recent history of the Pittsburgh Steelers to understand that some things simply are not the way they used to be. Particularly speaking of their prime recent period of the mid- to late-00s, comparison to the team’s current roster shows a unit, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, lacking notably in depth.
The secondary has been widely discussed ad infinitum at this point, and the yearly conversations wondering if this will finally be the year that a first-round cornerback will be taken have come and gone—and come back again.
The need to draft another safety—that box has too been checked. Need a new nose tackle, maybe another defensive lineman to add to the mix? That has been discussed quite a bit, particularly lately on this site. With the loss of two inside linebackers, that has been yet another discussion.
Less talked about, however, has been the need that still exists at the all-important outside linebacker position. In spite of the fact that the team has numbers there—they carried five on the 53-man roster for most of the season, and all five are likely to return in 2016—what is missing in the equation has been consistent, difference-making production.
The only player on the roster from which we might reasonably expect to hope to see such production in the future is second-year outside linebacker Bud Dupree, whom the Steelers took in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He played a lot in his rookie season, and cracked the starting lineup, but hit a wall, and was far from the force that they need him to be.
The other names on the depth chart are less inspiring, at least in 2016. The most convincing name from the group is that of James Harrison, who is only months younger than his position coach, Joey Porter. In logging the most snaps of the group, he managed five sacks, an interception, and a couple of forced fumbles.
But he may not even return this year, and will certainly be gone the following year. Jarvis Jones may play his way out of Pittsburgh as well if he continues to underperform and is unable to earn a full-time starting position. Arthur Moats is simply a solid outside linebacker, but nothing more. Anthony Chickillo’s highest aspirations figure to be ‘contributor’.
Even with the evolution of the defense in recent years, most prominently the increased emphasis on the pass-rushing element of the defensive line—their two starting defensive ends combined for 13.5 sacks a year ago—the bread and butter of a 3-4 defense, even one that plays predominantly in the nickel, will still be the edge rushers.
With the lack of a sure thing within the group, and little prospects for the future outside of Dupree, the dearth of quality talent at the outside linebacker position should certainly be a concern. While the topic has gotten some traction, it has seemed to me disproportionately less than other areas of need.
The Steelers, or any team, would be foolish to ignore a position simply because of what they may have already invested in it. Succumbing to the Sunken Cost Fallacy because they have use two first-round picks on outside linebackers in the past three drafts will not make those linebackers selected any better. If either one is not up to par, then another option must be sought.