As practices get set to begin on August 14th, we continue our training camp preview series with today’s focus being on the Steelers outside linebackers for the 2020 season. This position group features one of the league’s more dominant pass rushers, a veteran player who has finally lived up to his draft status, and some younger players who will need to step up behind the starters. The Steelers starting duo is coming off of an impressive season in 2019, combining for 26 sacks and forcing eight turnovers. However, due to salary cap issues, this could likely be their last ride together.
T.J. Watt has developed into one of the games best
The Steelers selected Watt 30th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, but there were seven pass rushers selected ahead of him. Throughout his first three seasons in the NFL, he has more sacks than all of the players taken before him, including the Cleveland Browns first-overall selection Myles Garrett.
With an elite blend of size, length, and athleticism, Watt’s production continued to improve last season. He posted career highs in sacks with 14.5, he forced eight fumbles, secured four fumble recoveries, eight passes defended, and intercepted two passes.
Heading into the fourth year of his rookie contract, Watt has demonstrated that he has outplayed his current contract. With players like Joey Bosa and Garrett each signing long term lucrative extensions recently, Watt could find himself in a position to become one of the highest-paid defensive players in the NFL.
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Bud Dupree has begun to live up to expectations
Dupree’s first four seasons with the Steelers featured average play at best. He saw some production, but nothing that stood out and warranted him being the team’s first-round selection.
In 2019, things appeared to come together for Dupree as he posted career highs in sacks, tackles, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries. His on-field production was rewarded with the Steelers placing the franchise tag on him, where he will make $15.8 million during the 2020 season.
Dupree progressed while playing against the left side of opposing team’s offensive lines. With Watt’s dominance opposite of him, paired with the play of potential rising stars Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers should have a good chance to continue to be a strong defensive unit in 2020.
Can Steelers rookie Alex Highsmith develop into a future starter?
With Watt and Dupree both producing strongly for the Steelers, their future will likely be bound by the salary cap after this season, making it difficult to keep both of them going forward. Highsmith was a third-round draft pick in the 2020 NFL Draft from the University of Charlotte, and the Steelers are hopeful he can eventually become Dupree’s replacement. He arrived at Charlotte as a middle linebacker but grew and worked his way into becoming a dominant, hand in the ground pass rusher, totaling 40 tackles for loss and 18 sacks in his final two seasons.
He’ll need to learn how to play more in a stand-up role as an edge rusher in training camp, which will help him play better in a 3-4 scheme despite his lack of size. The traits he possesses are clear to see and his development should become one of the most important areas to monitor throughout training camp for the Steelers.
Highsmith’s biggest issue as an edge rusher is that he doesn’t possess the length that is typically required to be successful at the position. When you reference his film from college, his lack of strength was evident at times. Highsmith also didn’t test in the bench press during his draft process. His hand size isn’t ideal but they are very active and do compensate for his length issues which allow him to work with secondary pass rush moves.
Steelers outside linebackers fighting to make the final 53
Olasunkanmi Adeniyi will have to prove he can play during training camp
Heading into his third season in the NFL, Adeniyi hasn’t seen much playing time within the Steeler’s base defense. Adeniyi has shown some flashes on special teams, tallying eight tackles and forcing two fumbles in 2019.
With his 6’1 and 248-pound frame, Adeniyi appears to undersized for the outside LB position within the Steelers defensive scheme. Additionally, without any preseason games, Adeniyi will have to hope that his play on specials from last season will help earn him a roster spot.
Tuzar Skipper has a strong chance to transition into a more prominent role
Last season, Skipper originally made the Steeler’s 53-man roster but was cut prior to Week 1. He was eventually re-signed off of the New York Giants practice squad in November and saw some on-field reps defensively in December, where he recorded half of a sack.
The Steelers were evidently pleased with what they saw and gave him a two-year contract extension. Because Skipper possesses more experience than Highsmith, he may find early playing time as a reserve while the Steelers rookie gets more acclimated.
James Lockhart faces a long-shot with making the final roster
Lockhart was an undrafted free agent after splitting his college career between both Texas A&M and Baylor. In order for him to begin his NFL career, he’ll have to learn how to play more from a stand-up position at the edge of the line of scrimmage.
In college, his pass rush wins were more attributed to his bull rush than athletic movement. Lockhart’s best chance of making the Steelers roster in 2020 is widely projected to be with the practice squad. However, at 6’2 263 pounds, there are some traits that Lockhart possesses that could be developed by the Steelers.