By Jeremy Hritz
It’s a nice spot to be in to have the best player in the world on defense at outside linebacker in TJ Watt. His level of play in 2021 was phenomenal, and he was able to dominate offensive tackles at will to not only rack up sacks, but also to earn the respect of voters to name him as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. There is no reason to expect anything less this season from Watt, and he will challenge for the NFL’s sack record once again. However, what does the position look like after him, and how does that factor in to the defense’s success in the upcoming season. I take a look at this in more in my depth chart analysis of outside linebacker.
|Tyree Johnson||44||OLB||6-4||240||23||R||Texas A&M|
|Derrek Tuszka||48||OLB||6-5||246||25||3||North Dakota State|
I’ve already spoken about Watt, and I’ll save the repetitive praise of his performance to allow for time to analyze the other players at the position starting with Alex Highsmith. Highsmith, who is entering his third season, has been solid in his first two years, and following a tremendous training camp in 2021, his regular season performance was not as spectacular. There was an expectation for a bit more in terms of pressures and sacks, and while he did triple his rookie year sack number with 6, there was still meat left on the bone, which hopefully is taken advantage of in the upcoming season. When recently speaking with the media, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin indicated that Highsmith needs to finish the play, and that Highsmith himself has the self-awareness of this. If he does take the next step in year #3, his improvement could make Watt even more effective, in addition to upgrading the entire defense, as pressure enhances the entire defensive scheme.
Beyond Highsmith, it would appear that Genard Avery and Derrek Tuszka will provide the depth, though there has been speculation the team could sign a mid-tier free agent OLB like they did last offseason with Melvin Ingram. However, the longer the offseason goes on without a signing, the less likely this becomes. Avery, over his 5-year career with both Cleveland and Philadelphia, has flashed at times, but has not established any consistency in his play. The Steelers are hoping Avery can provide spot duty and production and add to his 7.5 career sacks. Tuszka signed with the Steelers during the season and was a mild surprise, recording sacks after producing nothing the year before in Denver. There were some flashes in his game the Steelers believe they can sharpen and turn him into an effective backup.
The Best of the Rest
Beyond the top four, there are a pair of UDRFAs, and 2 other players with a combined 3-years of NFL experience. Rookie Tyree Johnson is intriguing because he is considered a pass-rush specialist with outstanding burst off of the line of scrimmage, while fellow rookie TD Moultry is stocky and has a James Harrison-type frame, with accompanying strength. Can either of them flash enough to carve a spot on the practice squad? Rounding out the position are Tuzar Skipper, who is returning to the team in an effort to do what he could not do before: make the roster and stick. Delontae Scott is purely depth, and it is difficult to envision him making it out of the first or second round of cuts.
OLB Is a Position of Strength
OLB is strong for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and if Highsmith takes another step in his development, Watt’s production could increase. The concerns about depth at the position are a bit overhyped, as both Avery and Tuszka are young and emerging players who can contribute in spots. Will they sign a free agent at the position? I highly doubt it, but I would not count out either of the 2 UDRFAs capturing the attention of the coaching staff and making for a difficult decision come final cut time.