This late into free agency, teams are searching for serviceable depth to try and plug holes down the roster.
That’s exactly what the Pittsburgh Steelers did Monday, signing veteran linebacker Genard Avery to a one-year deal, giving the Steelers depth and versatility at outside linebacker, adding another terrific athlete that the Steelers had history with leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft.
Though it’s not a major move overall, it’s how good teams and good depth charts are built this time of year.
Avery was a name I was quite familiar with leading up to his signing with the Steelers Monday, having profiled him coming out of Memphis for the site ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft. Of course, Avery then went on to be drafted by the Cleveland Browns before being traded midway through his second season to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he received more consistent playing time in a loaded Eagles’ front seven, providing Philadelphia with solid snaps while making an impact overall against the run and in space.
While he profiles as more of an outside linebacker for the Steelers, allowing him to compete for the No. 3 job behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, there’s an argument for allowing Avery to play in space more, utilizing his speed, athleticism and overall range on the field.
There’s a lot to like with Avery, which I’ll break down below, dividing into three categories: run defense, play in space, and rushing the passer. I was able to watch three games of Avery’s 2021 season against the San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, totaling 115 of his 357 total defensive snaps last season, good for nearly 35% of his snaps last season.
The area of Avery’s game I believe is his strongest is defending the run. He’s very quick overall with his first step, can slip under and around blocks, and will chase plays from the backside relentlessly. Though he’s a bit undersized overall for the position at just 6-foot, 248 pounds with 31-inch arms, he fights his tail off on the edge, setting it well against the run, and utilizing some of his short-area burst to defeat blocks.
He has a strong swim move to defeat blocks initially against the run, as you can see here against Carolina tight end Ian Thomas. It’s pretty darn quick and causes Thomas to whiff badly, allowing Avery to penetrate into the backfield. From there, you can see him take on half-man against the Panthers’ fullback, allowing him to make a play on running back Chuba Hubbard for the tackle for loss.
Earlier in the season against the 49ers, Avery showed off similar abilities in defeating the block of San Francisco Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
He moves very well in space overall and is a sound tackler. He is in control throughout reps too, rarely looking like he’s playing too fast or in a hurry to make a play, which is great to see. He reads his keys, trusts his eyes and allows himself to make plays thanks to his abilities.
Avery is a really smart player overall and won’t be fooled often, which stood out to me right away on film.
Avery is tenacious from the backside too. He will consistently chase the football and covers a ton of ground throughout games. I’d be very curious to have a GPS tracker on him and see how much ground he covers throughout games. That said, I really like the way he defends the run from the backside.
Sometimes you’ll see players try and steal a rep or two off on plays away from them. Not Avery.
Here against the 49ers he does a great job of getting extension on the block from the tight end, finds the football and flows down the line of scrimmage well to make the stop for a short gain. Plays like this might not stand out overall, but they’ll be praised in film sessions, largely due to his motor running hot and wanting to be in on every single play.
While I do like him as a run defender overall, he does have his limitations. The lack of length really hinders him at times against the run, which caused him to struggle to get off blocks, and at one point in Week 2 against the 49ers, end up on his back due to a tenacious block from All-Pro tight end George Kittle.
Bottom of the screen, you can see him struggle to create leverage against Kittle, who them dumps him on his back outside the numbers for the pancake.
Playing In Space
Avery is a legitimate athlete, one that can thrive in space if given the opportunity.
He’s been mostly stuck around the line of scrimmage throughout his career, but the Eagles did a nice job of letting him drop and utilize his eyes in space. As I mentioned earlier, his motor runs hot consistently, so he covers an insane amount of space on plays in which he’s allowed to drop into space and run.
This rep against the 49ers early in the Week 2 matchup last season might not look like much, but it really showed the type of athlete Avery is. Watch his lower half, how easily he flips his hips both ways and opens up, and then his footwork to change directions and race to the football.
Avery consistently does a good job of getting depth in his drops into zone while keeping his eyes locked on the quarterback. This play against the Niners was pretty impressive overall. He gets great initial depth undercutting the vertical route from Kittle, but then has the wherewithal to break off his drop as he sees Jimmy Garoppolo scrambling, firing downhill for the stop.
Late in the game against the 49ers, Avery really showed off his motor and overall range.
You can’t teach heart and effort, and Avery has that in abundance, which will really endear him to veterans on the team, especially Cam Heyward, who makes it a point to chase the football.
Rushing The Passer
After a promising rookie season in Cleveland in which he recorded 4.5 sacks, Avery has seen his production dip dramatically from a sack standpoint, recording just 3.0 sacks in the three seasons since. A lot of that has to do with usage as Avery rushed the passer just a handful of times in the three games I watched.
In fact, of the 357 total snaps in 2021 for Avery, 83 were pass rush reps, while 82 were coverage reps.
It was very clear from the Eagles’ perspective that he was on the field to defend the run and drop into space. He’ll have to rush the passer more often in Pittsburgh as a potential No. 3 OLB behind Watt and Highsmith. He has a good getoff and can really bend the edge as a speed rusher, but there’s no rip move to speak of with Avery, and he doesn’t generate speed to power for a bullrush well enough just yet.
He bullrush tends to stall out early because he is slow to generate that speed into power like some smaller outside linebackers were able to.
Of course, his time in Cleveland showed he can rush the passer, specifically utilizing his getoff. Steelers fans should remember him for the play he made in the 2018 season opener, a game that ultimately ended in a 21-21 tie.
His getoff here against Marcus Gilbert allowed him to win in poor conditions. Look at the way he’s able to turn the corner and get to Ben Roethlisberger for the sack and forced fumble. And yes, that’s Joe Schobert with the football.
That same season in Cleveland, Avery flashed that getoff against, whipping Cincinnati’s Bobby Hart around right end for the sack.
Overall, I think Avery is a smart buy-low move for the Steelers, one that brings 53 games of experience to the table, nearly 1,200 defensive snaps and more than 400 career special teams snaps. I believe the Steelers will view him as an edge, even though he’s slightly undersized and works better off the football where he can utilize his speed and athleticism in space.
At worst, I think he’s going to be a strong addition to Danny Smith’s special teams and will help shore up the run defense when on the field, which is an area that the Steelers saw a drop-off in play when Watt and Highsmith were off the field.