Among the departures from the Pittsburgh Steelers roster over the past 13 months have been L.J. Fort, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Tyler Matakevich, Anthony Chickillo and Roosevelt Nix.
Insignificant? In the context that the five combined to play an average of only 8.65% of the Steelers offensive or defensive snaps over their final season with the team, sure.
But don’t tell coach Mike Tomlin their contributions were insignificant — and don’t dare tell Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith that, either. That’s because those five were among the top seven in special-teams snaps played for the Steelers in 2018. Counting the release of Johnny Holton, three of the top five most-used special teamers are gone from last season now, too.
That fact played no small role in the Steelers targeting Derek Watt in free agency. While a fullback commanding a three-year, $9.75 million contract might seem excessive, Watt likely was desired more for his special teams.
Tomlin repeatedly enjoyed extolling the virtues of his most trusted special teams players. Last August, for example, he said, “I feel like we got great veteran presence on our special teams units with guys like Tyler and Rosie (Nix) and Chickillo and (Jordan) Dangerfield, and others, who have been core components of our unit.”
Chickillo led the Steelers in special-teams snaps played each of his first two seasons with the team (2016-17). Fort played more Steelers special-teams snaps than anyone in 2018, and Matakevich was the leader in that category last season.
From that core, only Dangerfield remains — and he by a thread after the Steelers did not tender him a contract as a restricted free agent and instead signed him after cutting him loose.
Last season, Watt played 78.2% of the Los Angeles Chargers’ special-teams snaps, according to footballoutiders.com. Per data compiled by teamrankings.com, Watt and Matakevich tied with the New Orleans Saints’ J.T. Gray for the most special-teams tackles in the NFL last season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Watt played at least 40 snaps each on the Chargers’ kick coverage, kick return, punt coverage, punt return and field goal/extra-point kick teams.
Watt, who has not missed a game since the Chargers took him in the sixth round of the 2016 draft, has played 1,168 special-teams snaps over the past four seasons. Only Matakevich has played in more for the Steelers in that time.
But how good is Watt on special teams? PFF’s grading process rated him fifth best among the 183 players in NFL who played in at least 204 special-teams snaps last season.
For reference, Matakevich rated 20th, Chickillo 96th and Fort 21st (while splitting the season between the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens).
Watt helped lead special-teams units that rated among the top 10 in the NFL each of the past two seasons. Then again, using footballoutsiders.com’s more quantitative formula to evaluate special teams, the Chargers rated dead last in the league last season.
And the irony of the Steelers’ turnover with their core special teamers now is they had their best-rated unit last season (14th by PFF; ninth by Football Outsiders) than at any point over the past four years: their average PFF special teams rating from 2016-18 was 26th in the NFL and 17th by Football Outsiders.
Going forward, the likes of Ola Adeniyi, Robert Spillane, Trey Edmunds and Justin Layne figure to likely take on more prominent special teams roles — with Watt the centerpiece of the unit.