Steelers spotlight: Can first-round picks Dupree, Jones make an impact in 2016?
March 27, 2016 12:00 AM
Jarvis Jones, the 17th pick of the 2013 draft, has five sacks in three regular seasons.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
No other position for the Steelers has been more decorated than that of outside linebacker, both recently and through their history.
Since the turn of the century, the Steelers have placed outside linebackers in the Pro Bowl 12 times, more than any other position. Twice during that time they put both of their starters in the same Pro Bowl.
Then, as their starters aged or were injured, the franchise began a new era at outside linebacker when they sunk their two first-round draft choices in 2013 and 2015 into the position.
That would seem to assure them long-term stability there. But has it?
Their best linebacker last season was 37-year-old James Harrison, and he could be their best again in 2016 with the stated desire by the Steelers that he return. Their next-best was veteran Arthur Moats, signed from Buffalo in 2014 as a free agent and then re-signed last year.
Those two first-round draft picks? The Steelers are waiting to see the production.
Jarvis Jones, the 17th pick of the 2013 draft, has five sacks in three regular seasons, which includes 36 games and 26 starts, on the right side.
Bud Dupree, the 22nd player drafted last year, had four sacks as a rookie in 15 games played, five starts, on the left side.
Harrison started one game of the 15 he played last year and had five sacks.
Pro Football Focus, which is in the business of rating players and has as clients many NFL teams, ranked Harrison as the eighth-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL last season. Among the Steelers, Moats was next at No. 24. Jones was 30. And of the 53 outside linebackers they ranked, Dupree was No. 53.
Those rankings and their outside linebackers’ rather modest sack totals do not nearly measure up to the days when Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were in their prime and terrorizing quarterbacks. Nor equal to the Joey Porter-Clark Haggans one-two punch, nor the downright scary combo of Greg Lloyd and newly-minted Hall of Famer Kevin Greene in the Blitzburgh defense of the mid-1990s.
But then they never used first-round draft picks to find their linebackers in the old days, either. There was a rush to install both Jones and Dupree as starters in their rookie seasons and maybe they just were not yet ready. Jones’ career was also thrown off kilter by a severe wrist injury that nearly wiped out his second season in 2014.
Surely, there has to be optimism that Dupree will only improve in his second season. But what of Jones? His third season was inconsistent, albeit somewhat promising at times, even though he had just two sacks in 2015.
We should get a better idea of what the Steelers really think of him over the next six weeks because they will have to determine whether to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract for 2017.
The option-year cost in 2017 for players selected after the top 10 rounds in 2013 is the average of the third-through-25th highest salaries at the player’s position. The fifth-year option price last year for linebackers was $7,751,000 for those drafted in rounds 11-32. That, of course, will rise.
Will the Steelers pay it? They have until May 2 to decide. The option year is guaranteed only through injury. If they do not exercise it, Jones would become an unrestricted free agent next year unless he signs a new contract before then.
The Steelers exercised the options of their previous two first-rounders since the new CBA added that feature beginning with the 2011 draft picks – defensive end Cameron Heyward and guard David DeCastro.
If they do not lock up Jones for 2017, they will be shopping for another starter for that season. Surely, this will be Harrison’s last year at age 38 and there is no one else on the right side with any experience or even much promise. They probably could split up Moats and Dupree that season, if need be.
Moats opened the 2015 season as their starter but gave way to Dupree, which might have been to justify his draft position, as was the reason for starting Jones right away as a rookie.
If Harrison returns, the outside linebackers at least will have some talent and depth in 2016 if not the kind of dominance they historically have had at the position. No Steelers outside linebacker has made a Pro Bowl since the 2011 season, when Harrison made it for the fifth time. That four-year drought is the longest without a Steelers linebacker voted to the Pro Bowl since the seasons of 1987-90.
Those four returning linebackers likely will rotate at the positions again next season – Jones and Harrison on the right and Dupree and Moats on the left. Anthony Chickillo, a sixth-round draft pick last year who was cut and then re-signed, will get a look but there’s also talk he may play defensive end. Jordan Zumwalt, a swing-man between inside and outside, has spent the past two seasons on injured reserve since he was a sixth-round pick in 2014.
The top five outside linebacker prospects as rated by nfldraftscout.com, looking ahead to the NFL draft April 28-30:
Myles Jack, UCLA, Jr.
Darron Lee, Ohio State, So.
Leonard Floyd, Georgia, Jr.
Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame, Jr.
Joshua Perry, Ohio State, Sr.
April 22: Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets.
April 28-30: NFL draft, Chicago.
May 23-25: Spring league meeting, Charlotte, N.C.
Aug. 7: Hall of Fame game, Green Bay Packers vs. Indianapolis Colts, Canton, Ohio.
Sept. 8: Likely regular-season opener featuring the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
Ed Bouchette: ebouchette at post-gazette.com. Join him for his weekly Steelers chats at 1:30 p.m. each Tuesday at post-gazette.com.
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