Updated 7 hours ago
At age 29, seven seasons after a memorable NFL debut in 2012, L.J. Fort finally has achieved a level of workplace-choice freedom.
“It’s wild,” the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker said soon after this season ended. “Seven years in the league, and this is the first time I have been a free agent.
“I’ve never been through this situation before, so this is new to me. Hopefully, things work out.”
Fort hits unrestricted free agency at an ideal time for him in as he has established himself as a regular on defense. Fort played a significant role over the second half of the season, starting two games and finishing with 48 tackles (38 solo), a sack and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Fort is a longtime special-teams player who has been the property of six organizations and cut eight times since making his NFL debut in the 2012 opener for the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent. After a spinal injury to Ryan Shazier in December 2017, he began to play more on defense for the Steelers. He has spent all but five days with the team since it signed him Aug. 19, 2015.
By the midway point of the 2018 season, Fort had scaled the depth chart past Tyler Matakevich and Jon Bostic — and even, to a degree, Vince Williams — at inside linebacker for the Steelers.
“There was a stretch there where I feel like we made some adjustments that enabled not only myself but the other linebackers to be more successful,” Fort said. “But experience always helps a ton, so playing those few games definitely made me a lot better player.”
Steelers defensive coaches viewed Fort as their inside linebacker best equipped to play in passing situations. In the modern NFL, that’s a lot, especially against some teams (and Fort’s usage was appropriately higher in certain games).
Fort played 305 snaps on defense over 12 games, according to Pro Football Focus. Between having a sack and an interception in his debut Sept. 9, 2012, in a loss to Philadelphia and Week 4 of this season, he had only 12 games in which he played more than one snap on defense.
Fort was especially aware that, in an apparent sign of how valuable he was becoming, he was taken off the kickoff team in Week 17 . It was the first time he played linebacker but not on the kickoff team in his NFL career.
“Personally, yeah, this is the most I have ever played, especially linebacker,” Fort said. “We didn’t win enough as a team for it to be considered a success, but for me personally, it was definitely an awesome year.”
Awesome enough that it will force the Steelers to make a decision. Do they bring back Fort? If so, with what role in mind? Is he a future part of the defense, or was 2018 more of a function of a linebackers corps that lacked depth? Is Fort valuable enough on special teams alone to warrant a new contract?
Will Fort generate interest from other teams, taking the decision away from the Steelers?
“I love this place, this organization,” Fort said. “Most Lombardi (Trophies) in the league, so that would be cool to stay, for sure.”
Per the grades of Pro Football Focus, Fort had a good season, rating “above average” overall and better than average in every category it measures: run defense, tackling, pass rush and coverage. PFF graded Fort as the NFL’s 19th-best inside linebacker, 10th best against the run.
In the dime package the Steelers turned to more often than ever this season, Fort was typically the only true inside linebacker on the field.
Under contract at inside linebacker for the Steelers in 2019 are Williams ($6.7 million cap hit, according to Spotrac.com), Bostic ($2.5 million cap hit) and Matakevich ($735,764). But the organization is expected to address the position in the draft and/or via free agency.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.