At the end of free agency, teams look for usable depth to try and plug holes in the roster.
That’s exactly what the Pittsburgh Steelers did on Monday, signing veteran linebacker Genard Avery to a one-year deal, giving the Steelers depth and versatility at outside linebacker, adding another terrific athlete the Steelers had a history with. leading to the 2018 NFL Draft.
While not a major move overall, it’s how good teams and depth charts are built at this time of year.
Avery was a name I knew long before he signed with the Steelers on Monday, having profiled him coming out of Memphis for the site ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft. being traded midway through his second season to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he received more consistent playing time in the Eagles’ loaded first seven, providing Philadelphia with solid shots while making an overall impact against the run and in the ‘space.
Although he presents himself more as an outside linebacker for the Steelers, allowing him to compete for the No. 3 position behind TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith, there is an argument for allowing Avery to play more in space, using his speed, athleticism, and overall range on the pitch.
There’s a lot to like about Avery, which I’ll break down below, breaking them down into three categories: running defense, playing in space, and rushing the passer. I was able to watch three games of Avery’s 2021 season against the San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, totaling 115 of his 357 total defensive snaps last season, up nearly 35 % of his shots last season.
Avery’s area of play, I believe, is his strongest is defending the run. He is very quick overall with his first step, can slide under and around blocks, and will tirelessly chase games from behind. Although he’s a bit undersized overall for the position at just 6ft, 248lbs with 31in arms, he fights his tail over the edge, setting it well against the run and using some of its short area burst to defeat blocks.
He has a strong swimming motion to overcome blocks initially against the run, as you can see here against Carolina tight end Ian Thomas. It’s damn fast and makes Thomas breathe badly, allowing Avery to get into the backfield. From there, you can see him take on the half-man against the Panthers fullback, allowing him to make a play on running back Chuba Hubbard for the tackle for the loss.
Earlier in the season against the 49ers, Avery showed similar abilities by beating San Francisco Pro Bowl guard Kyle Juszczyk’s block.
He moves very well in space overall and is a good tackler. He’s also in control throughout the rehearsals, rarely looking like he’s playing too fast or in a rush to play, which is nice to see. He reads his keys, trusts his eyes, and allows himself to play games with his abilities.
Avery is a very smart player overall and won’t get fooled often, which made an impression on me right away on the film.
Avery is also tenacious at the back. He will constantly chase the football and cover a ton of ground throughout the games. I would be very curious to have a GPS tracker on it and see how much ground it covers throughout games. That said, I really like the way he defends the race from behind.
Sometimes you will see players trying to steal a rep or two on games away from them. Not Avery.
Here against the 49ers, he does a great job of getting an extension on the block from the tight end, finds the football, and flows nicely down the line of scrimmage to make the save for a short gain. Pieces like this might not stand out overall, but it will be praised at movie shows, in large part because of its engine that heats up and wants to partake in every piece.
While I like him as a run defender overall, he has his limitations. The lack of length really bothers him sometimes against the run, which caused him to struggle to get out of the blocks, and at one point in Week 2 against the 49ers he found himself on his back due to a stubborn block from the All-Pro tight end. George Kittle.
At the bottom of the screen, you can see him struggling to build leverage against Kittle, who throws him on his back outside of the numbers for the pancake.
play in space
Avery is a legit athlete, who can thrive in space if given the chance.
He’s been mostly stuck around the line of scrimmage throughout his career, but the Eagles have done a good job of dropping him and using his eyes in space. As I mentioned earlier, its engine constantly heats up, so it covers an insane amount of space on games in which it is allowed to drop into space and run around.
That rep against the 49ers at the start of the Week 2 game last season might not look like much, but he really showed the type of athlete that Avery is. Look at his lower half, how easily he flips his hips back and forth and opens up, then his footwork to change direction and run towards the football.
Avery still does a good job of getting depth to his drops in the zone while keeping his eyes on the quarterback. This game against the Niners was pretty impressive overall. He gets a big initial depth by undermining Kittle’s vertical route, but then has the wherewithal to break his fall as he sees Jimmy Garoppolo rushing, shooting downhill for the stoppage.
Late in the game against the 49ers, Avery really showed his drive and overall range.
You can’t teach heart and effort, and Avery has it in abundance, which will really endear him to veterans of the team, especially Cam Heyward, who makes a point of chasing football.
Rushing the passerby
After a promising rookie season in Cleveland in which he recorded 4.5 sacks, Avery has seen his production drop dramatically from a sack perspective, recording just 3.0 sacks in the three seasons since. It has a lot to do with usage, as Avery only rushed the passer a handful of times in the three games I watched.
In fact, of the 357 total snaps in 2021 for Avery, 83 were fast pass reps, while 82 were cover reps.
It was very clear from the Eagles’ perspective that he was on the field to defend the run and fall into space. He will have to rush the passer more often in Pittsburgh as a potential OLB No. 3 behind Watt and Highsmith. He has a great start and can really bend the edge like a speed rusher, but there’s no tearing motion to speak of with Avery, and he doesn’t generate enough speed to power a stampede well enough for the instant.
He tends to stall early because he’s slow to generate that power velocity like some small outside linebackers have been able to.
Of course, his time in Cleveland showed he could rush the passer, specifically using his exit. Steelers fans should remember him for the game he played in the 2018 season opener, a game that ultimately ended in a 21-21 draw.
His outing here against Marcus Gilbert allowed him to win in bad conditions. Watch how he is able to turn the corner and reach Ben Roethlisberger for the sack and the forced fumble. And yes, it’s Joe Schobert with football.
That same season in Cleveland, Avery flashed that outing against, whipping Cincinnati’s Bobby Hart down the right side for the sack.
Overall, I think Avery is a smart buy move for the Steelers, bringing 53 games of experience to the table, nearly 1,200 defensive snaps and over 400 career special teams snaps. I believe the Steelers will see him as an advantage, even though he is slightly undersized and works best with football where he can use his speed and athleticism in space.
At worst, I think he’ll be an important addition to Danny Smith’s special teams and help bolster the defense against running down the field, an area where the Steelers saw a drop in play when Watt and Highsmith were absent. field.