While the Pittsburgh Steelers did somewhat address the outside linebacker position during the 2019 NFL Draft with the selection of former Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith, it’s hard to imagine the 6003, 233-pound MAC-pass-rushing-dynamo becoming a long-time starter and thus the team’s heir apparent to current starter Bud Dupree, who is scheduled to play what might ultimately be his final season in Pittsburgh in 2019 while earning more than $9 million in the process.
With Dupree now seemingly set to go unchallenged for his starting outside linebacker position this year, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert was asked during a Tuesday morning interview on 93.7 The Fan to reveal what it is that he and the rest of the Steelers organization sees in Dupree that a lot of analysts and fans on the outside probably don’t see in the former first-round draft pick out of Kentucky.
“When we look at Bud and we look at T.J. [Watt] collectively, those two had as good a season as we’ve had out of that position,” Colbert said. “And you know, Coach [Mike Tomlin] made the switch last year and put T.J. mostly on the left and Bud mostly on the right and the four, Cam [Heyward] and [Stephon] Tuitt and [Javon] Hargrave, with those two, we got more pressure last year than we had in recent years. So, I think Bud is a part of that. Can he do more? Does he want to do more? Absolutely. And we think he will. So, as I’ve said, at 9-6-1, we weren’t good enough in any one area, but we certainly believe that Bud was a contributor and he will be a contributor probably even in a more beneficial mode for us this year.”
While Colbert still seemingly has a lot of confidence in Dupree, and in 2019 possibly being the best season of his career, the Steelers general manager was also quick to point out that the depth behind the team’s two starters maybe isn’t as bad as what most seem to think.
“But in that position, we also had Ola [Adeniyi], who was with us last year – the young free agent and we had gotten from Toledo, did some real good things in the preseason,” Colbert said. “[He] didn’t get to play too much [last season] because he was on Reserve/Injured and activated late in the year. Anthony Chickillo we wanted to keep in the mix, and then when you get the guy like Sutton Smith who, you know, Sutton was a defensive end at Northern Illinois, but he’ll be projected to be an outside linebacker for us.”
As for Smith, who registered 30 total in the 38 total games that he played in at Northern Illinois, in addition to 20 official quarterback hurries in those three seasons, Colbert doesn’t seem to be overly worried about his lack of height or weight as he enters the NFL.
“And you know, we talk about, well, he’s going to be short and that, but he was very productive like James Harrison was in the MAC with 13 and a half sacks and 15 sacks,” Colbert said of Smith. “So, can a shorter guy succeed as an outside rusher? Yes, they can. Again, we look at James for that reference. So, I think with Ola and Bud and Chick and T.J., and Sutton Smith getting in the mix. I think we’ll have some good pressure.”
All eyes this summer will be on backup outside linebackers Olasunkanmi Adeniyi and Smith and maybe even Keion Adams, who Colbert failed to even mention on Tuesday, and that’s probably not a great sign. While Adeniyi certainly did look like he can play the outside linebacker spot in the Steelers defense last year during the preseason, he played less than 10 defensive snaps late during the 2018 regular season after finally returning from the team’s Reserve//Injured list. In short, he should be expected to have a great second training camp and preseason as much as Colbert has bragged about him this offseason.
While the Steelers did manage to re-sign Anthony Chickillo this offseason, they almost had to because of him being the only experienced outside linebacker behind starters Dupree and T.J. Watt. Chickillo, however, seemingly is what he is at this point and that’s a marginal backup whose biggest asset to the team comes on special teams. Should either Dupree or Watt suffer an injury that results in a lot of missed games this season, the Steelers defense might be in a world of trouble and especially if Adeniyi doesn’t quickly show that he’s a better option than Chickillo.
Yes, I will certainly be rooting for Smith to turn out to be more than just a special teams player, but odd are probably good that at best, he’ll just be a backup with most of value coming in the third phase of the game.