Kozora: Steelers Must Find Way To Re-sign Tyler Matakevich

Every Steelers’ fan is talking about Bud Dupree. Will they franchise tag him? Will he sign a long-term deal? How will the team find a way to keep him and TJ Watt long-term?

And there’s no question he’s priority #1. The organization’s already said so. But of the other free agents who could realistically be retained (sorry, Javon Hargrave doesn’t fall in that category), the next man on that list needs to be Tyler Matakevich.

Losing him wouldn’t hurt the team the way it would Dupree but man, it’d be a tough pill to swallow. The best NFL rosters are well-rounded. Offense, defense, and special teams. Poor special teams is part what doomed the Steelers two years ago. It’s easy to overlook, easy to cheap out and just assume new talent will be found. But Matakevich is a player worth holding onto.

Since he was drafted in 2016, statistically, no one has been better covering kicks and punts. Here are the Steelers’ leaders in special teams tackles from 2016-2019.

1. Tyler Matakevich – 37
2. Anthony Chickillo – 15
3. Jordan Dangerfield – 14
4. Robert Spillane – 11
5. Roosevelt Nix – 9

Matakevich is leading the team by well more than double the next man up and has more than the combined tackles of second and third place. Now let’s apply that league-wide. Your NFL league leaders over the past four seasons.

1. Tyler Matakevich – 37
2. Michael Thomas – 35
3. Deshazor Everett – 31
3. Justin Bethel – 31
5. Miles Killebrew – 30
5. Nate Ebner – 30

It’s the same story for solo tackles.

1. Tyler Matakevich – 30
2. Michael Thomas – 27
3. Deshazor Everett – 25
3. Miles Killebrew – 25
5. Justin Bethel – 24

It’s hard to be any more dominant than that. Matakevich is doing laps around the field whether you’re talking about his team or across the NFL.

Of course, with all that production, it’s no surprise Matakevich has logged a ton of snaps too. Here are his year-by-year special teams snap counts.

2019: 337
2018: 317
2017: 281
2016: 269

That’s 1204 snaps from the last four years you’d have to replace. That doesn’t just happen. Can’t just draft someone in the 6th round and assume that guy can bring the same level of play, just in the way you couldn’t expect a 6th round pick to replace, say, Dupree if he was hypothetically not retained.

Special teams are like your car battery. Always there but often forgotten until it stops working the moment you need it most. Building a roster means finding those two or three core special teamers. Every team has them. New England, the standard bearer for constructing a team, has employed Matthew Slater for the last ten years. Matakevich is Pittsburgh’s version of that.

There will be obstacles in bringing him back. He won’t sign for the minimum. He’s now a veteran coming off his rookie deal and as we’ve outlined, one of football’s most valuable players at his job. There should and will be a market for him. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much he”ll command. To use Slater as our broad guideline, he signed a two year, $5.2 million deal with the Patriots in 2018 (the Steelers briefly courted him before he re-upped in Foxborough). For a cash-strapped Steelers’ team, that’s significant money but if there’s a way to make it work, and I imagine there’s a way to structure this kind of deal, Pittsburgh should feel compelled to do it.

The other factor is a little harder to imagine but from Matakevich’s perspective, he knows there’s not much of a path to ever play on defense for this unit. He could be a backup Buck in 2020 assuming Mark Barron is cut but still, will never going to be part of this team’s immediate defensive plans. While it’s unlikely any team will be setting down runway lights for a starting job elsewhere, it’s in his best interest to at least test the market and see if there’s a chance for something more substantial on an ILB-needy team. Not much Pittsburgh can do about that.

But losing Matakevich would be a massive blow to the Steelers’ special teams. He’s done everything you could hope for out of a 7th round pick. Someone who’s worked his butt off, made the roster stronger and more competitive, with staying power and a clear role with elite production.

Since Kevin Colbert took over in 2000, only two Steelers’ 7th round picks have appeared in more games with Pittsburgh than Matakevich’s 63 – Brett Keisel (156) and David Johnson (68). He epitomizes the Steelers’ build-from-within strategy and losing him only means starting that process all over again.

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