As per last year, I’ll be sharing projections for every team in the NFL. I use past production in specific roles for each team’s scheme to work out realistic production profiles. You can see how accurate I was in 2017 in my IDP Projection Marking series.
The Steelers are continually lauded as having an amazing roster. The consensus seems to be that they have fantastic players from top to bottom. That’s clearly not true. They have strengths and weaknesses just like every other team. There’s been a fair amount of turnover and evolution over the past couple of seasons and this unit is starting to feel notably more fresh and exciting.
In 2017, Javon Hargrave managed just 454 snaps. That was the highest number for any Steelers tackle in the past five years. This scheme uses a nose tackle only in running situations and therefore it’s a very low-value option. On top of that, Hargrave offers very little as a pass rusher so you’re hoping a low-volume, two-gapping nose tackle can record high numbers of individual tackles. Let one of your league mates own him. There’s no upside here.
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Firstly, as 3-4 ends, their individual ceilings are limited. Five or six sacks is a good return for them because of how much harder it is to play on the inside. Secondly, they’ve really found it tough to stay healthy together. Only once in the past four seasons have they both stayed mostly healthy. In that season (2015), they combined for 13.5 sacks and 108 total tackles.
Therefore, both are good but not great options and should be treated as solid players with some good weeks rather than every-week starters.
Behind the two main guys, former Jaguars bust Tyson Alualu is the top backup. He’s a body and can fill in but shouldn’t be started (except as an emergency) even in case of injury.
This is probably the key conundrum with Ryan Shazier out of the picture. The fixed point is Vince Williams. He played 738 snaps last season and should be on the field about the same in 2018. The problem with him is that he is asked to eat blocks and rush the passer a lot. That limits his value. His tackle efficiency has been very good but given his build and speed, it’s tough to see him improving that much. He certainly can’t perform the same role Ryan Shazier did in 2017. Williams just doesn’t have that speed or awareness.
Tyler Matakevich and Jon Bostic are currently engaged in a training camp scuffle for the other inside linebacker spot. Matakevich has the early upper hand but the disadvantage of being inexperienced and not very good. Bostic isn’t great either but he’s put together some good periods across his career. In all likelihood, both will get the chance to be on the field at some point and it’s unlikely either of them are breakout stars.
T.J. Watt is clearly the top player here and it seems after a very promising rookie season that the Steelers might finally have found a good starter after throwing draft picks at this position. As a pure pass-rusher, he’s clearly the most exciting option on this team. The issue is that he can do more than that. It’s great in NFL terms that a player has flexibility but it’s bad for IDPs. Watt can be a better pass rusher this year but the time he spends in coverage is a potential issue.
On the other side, Bud Dupree was good in 2017. He managed more total pressures than Watt. The issue is he hasn’t shown he can stay on the field. He’s managed just 1,680 snaps in his three seasons so far. You should expect some big weeks but not a reliable season-long performer.
Artie Burns is probably going to show a jump in quality this season but he’s still the top option given Joe Haden played so (surprisingly) well in 2017. Mike Hilton should play in the slot and therefore has limited volume upside.
There are probably not a lot of great options as IDP corners here.
The Steelers shocked everyone when they selected Terrell Edmunds in the first round – mainly because they’d just signed Morgan Burnett and already had Sean Davis signed up. Edmunds is a bit raw so it’s possible this was just a savvy move to obtain a player ahead of when the position is a need but it did look a little strange.
One theory (I was a big proponent of this) is that the Steelers are planning to get in on the trend of playing more ‘Big Nickel’ as a response to lighter offensive personnel. Edmunds, Burnett, and Davis could be a really interesting personnel group and offer a lot of flexibility. Edmunds, in particular, played a hybrid role in college and looks like one of the many college safeties converted to NFL linebacker recently.
The projections above take a bit of a pragmatic view of this situation with no one really owning a full-time role. The safest assumption right now is that there is no real full-time box safety and none of these players are hugely valuable over the whole season.
Cam Heyward. If he can stay healthy, Heyward is a difference-maker on this defense. His upside is a season similar to Akiem Hicks in 2017.
Vince Williams. Williams is a decent NFL starter. But he’s a bit lumbering and certainly can’t play that deep, zone spot that Ryan Shazier did so well in 2017. As a result, his upside is just a bit limited. He’s been valued by many as simply the top Steelers LB but he doesn’t really have the ability to do what that implies. He’s a useful roster piece but not a star.
Terrell Edmunds. This is a long shot but Edmunds actually could play that Shazier role. He’ll need to develop a bit and learn a lot about how to cover in the pros but at some point in the next couple of years, Edmunds could be the next Mark Barron or Deone Bucannon.
This unit could go either way. We could see T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree and everyone else all come together to be a better unit that we’ve seen in past years. But it’s Pittsburgh. It could easily be an OK-but-not-great defense too. It should certainly be a bit more watchable given some of the playmakers they’ve brought on board for 2018.
Thanks for reading.