The Pittsburgh Steelers lost their third free agent of the early portions of the offseason yesterday when inside linebacker L.J. Fort agreed to a three-year contract to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles that, if fully realized, would pay him a total of $10 million.
That is a substantial windfall for a player in his circumstances, who since being a college free agent in 2012 has earned less than $3 million. That is only one of the reasons that it’s hard to blame him for taking the deal and leaving Pittsburgh, which has been his home since 2015.
The fact of the matter is, in spite of the fact that we routinely heard praise from the coaching staff about his abilities, particularly in coverage, they just as frequently passed on giving him the opportunity to log more playing time on defense, even though he had always been a strong performer in the preseason.
Fort, who has been released by the Steelers three times over the years only to be re-signed—sometimes days later, and twice due to injuries—saw his biggest snub at the end of the 2017 season following the severe spinal injury suffered by Ryan Shazier.
Rather than give Fort, in theory the top interior backup at that time, the opportunity to start, they in fact first turned to outside linebacker Arthur Moats for playing time, having also re-signed Sean Spence off the street after being released by another team much earlier that offseason.
It didn’t take Moats long to show that he was, to be generous, out of practice playing inside, and Spence looked like a player who had spent months out of football. Fort was only given scraps, but he made them count, especially in coverage, where he registered five passes defensed over the final several games of the year, including the playoffs.
Yet when it came time to fill Shazier’s roster spot for 2018, it wasn’t Fort who they turned to. After signing Jon Bostic in free agency, they put him in competition with Tyler Matakevich for the starting role. He was never even a consideration for the post.
Then when Vince Williams was injured early in the season, they relied upon a rotation between Matakevich and Fort, rather than Fort alone, even though Matakevich struggled in his competition for a starting job earlier that summer.
Despite all of the failures of opportunity, however, his abilities ultimately, and finally, won out, and he not only was given the top backup, role, but was even given a defensive role outright, playing ahead of even Bostic and Williams as the lone inside linebacker when the team moved to its dime defense.
It resulted in him putting up career-high stats—and enough tape to convince another team to give him a nice new contract, one that suggests that they believe he’s capable of contributing in a larger capacity than the Steelers gave him an opportunity to demonstrate over the years. So, like I said, it’s hard to blame him, even if the money was the only deciding factor.