Steelers outside linebackers jockey for position on crowded depth chart
To rotate or not to rotate: That is the question that could impact the future of Steelers backup outside linebackers Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo this summer.
If the Steelers deploy a rotation system like they did for large stretches of the past two seasons, that could warrant five outside linebackers being on the 53-man roster Sept. 10 in Cleveland.
If the Steelers commit to Bud Dupree on the left side and James Harrison or first-rounder T.J. Watt on the right, that could open a spot at another position on the roster.
It’s a numbers game that neither Moats nor Chickillo, former sixth-round draft picks, is willing to play.
“You can’t,” Chickillo said. “Guys who look at the numbers don’t stay around long. You’ve got to come out, stay focused, keep the horse blinders on and keep working.”
The Steelers will head into training camp with Dupree and Harrison as the starters, Moats and Chickillo in reserve and Watt as Harrison’s heir apparent. Seventh-round draft pick Kion Adams also will be in the mix.
That’s six bodies for five spots — perhaps four, with Dupree, Harrison and Watt as locks to make the team. Moats, an eight-year veteran, is in the final year of a three-year contract and will count almost $2.9 million against the salary cap. Chickillo, heading into his third year, is an exclusive-rights free agent who will make $615,000. Adams seems destined for the practice squad unless he wows in the preseason.
“When I first came here, we kept three (outside linebackers),” Moats said. “We’ve also had five. Why do the numbers? At the end of the day, if you’re productive, everything is going to take care of itself.”
When Moats arrived from Buffalo in 2014, he joined Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones as the only outside linebackers on the 53-man roster. Harrison came out of retirement early in the season when Jones was placed on injured reserve.
The next season, the Steelers opened with four outside linebackers. Chickillo appeared to make the roster but was released a few days before the opener and began the season on the practice squad.
In 2016, the Steelers again kept four while Dupree headed to injured reserve for the first nine games.
Dupree’s injury allowed Moats to start the first five games and Chickillo the next seven at the left outside spot while Harrison and Jones rotated on the right side. The rotation ended in Week 10, with Dupree and Harrison playing almost exclusively. Moats played just four defensive snaps in the postseason. Chickillo, injured for the first two playoff games, played none on defense in the AFC championship game.
“If we rotate, great. If not, we’ll make it work,” Moats said. “We all have to be ready because injuries happen. Bud was hurt the first half of the season. I’m sure when we came into the season, we weren’t expecting that to happen, but it did. You have to be prepared.”
Outside linebackers coach Joey Porter likes the depth he has at his position.
“We have a lot of guys who have started before,” Porter said. “That’s what’s good coming in. Even with Chickillo and Bud being young, I have experience in that group, guys who have had starts, guys who have played in playoffs. Guys came in and gave us production in the roles they had.
“That’s always something to grow on.”
Still, outside linebackers accounted for just 16 1⁄2 of the team’s 38 sacks, led by Harrison’s five. Moats had 3 1⁄2 and Chickillo 2 1⁄2. Which is why the Steelers drafted Watt with the No. 30 overall pick after letting Jones depart via free agency.
“Every year there’s competition,” Moats said. “They are either drafting somebody or bringing somebody in — undrafted free agents, rookies, whatever it may be. You have to compete. You can’t worry about the numbers. If you’re productive, you’re going to be able to play whether it’s here or somewhere else.”
Chickillo is coming off his first full NFL season playing the position after lining up inside at the University of Miami. He also led all Steelers players by playing 277 snaps on special teams.
“I have a much better knowledge of the scheme and positions,” Chickillo said. “It was big to get that time and those plays last season. It can only help me moving forward.”
Moats was an oft-used special teamer with the Buffalo Bills, but he hasn’t logged 100 such snaps since his first season with the Steelers. He’s willing to take that route again to remain on the roster.
“The more you can do,” Moats said. “That’s the motto.”