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If The Steelers Start J.J. Wilcox, I Will Break Something

From afterthought to starter? If you believe yesterday’s report, that’s the progression J.J. Wilcox could make. Jeremy Fowler’s tweets made it sound like Wilcox not only has a good chance to hang onto the 2018 roster but be in the mix to start.

Which…woah. Just…woah. That is unexpected. And also, almost objectively, a bad idea.

To be fair, if Wilcox is on the roster and Mike Mitchell isn’t, the math says he’ll have a chance to make the roster. Heading into free agency, the team will have little depth at the position. Just him, Sean Davis, Robert Golden, and Jordan Dangerfield. Golden’s been established as a backup and Dangerfield took a step back after seeing time in 2016. With free agency limited and the draft’s options not a whole lot better, Wilcox will be in the mix by default.

But if I can admit that I was off in my assertion that Wilcox was getting sent packing, the Steelers have to admit starting him is equally erroneous. And if he shouldn’t start and his special teams play got him glued to the bench last year, what’s the value?

Only in Pittsburgh can a player go from traded for to seeing time on defense to benched to inactive to 2018 potential starter. But I guess that’s not a surprise after years of questionable evaluation, especially for any mid-level talent (or draft pick).

Wilcox played 134 snaps on defense last year, totaling 12 tackles. Based on what our Josh Carney charted, he missed an additional five. That means he missed nearly 30% of his opportunities, more than 10% what Sean Davis did and 17% above Mitchell, and missed a tackle once every 27 snaps. Yes, the sample size is small, but those numbers are as ugly as it gets.

Like this one, bad enough to make any Steelers fan swear like a sailor had it been Mitchell.

I get the team wanting to hold onto their draft pick investment after shipping out a sixth rounder a year ago, especially after the Justin Gilbert experiment failed. But that’s falling prey to the sunk cost fallacy, the idea to keep doing something because you’ve already invested in it rather than judging the idea on its own. It’s logic that eats itself. He must be kept because we need to keep him.

That’s what bad teams do. And what the Steelers usually do a good job avoiding. This time though, it feels different.

And we don’t know what’s going to happen yet. Not long ago, the report was the team would at discuss Wilcox returning but at a reduced salary. And no other beat writer has mentioned Wilcox as someone who could return; he’s still on the list of cap causalities by most of them. It also makes sense to keep some of their safety depth, temporarily at least, if Mitchell is shown the door and the relative “thinness” of options in free agency and the draft.

But if Wilcox is kept at his current number? That’s a red flag. Because either he’ll be a starter (worrisome) or a backup (financially irresponsible). The Steelers should do better. They have to do better. Or my TV is going through the window.

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