Linebacker L.J. Fort hits free agency after breakout season for Steelers |

Linebacker L.J. Fort hits free agency after breakout season for Steelers

Chris Adamski
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker L.J. Fort (54) recovers a fumble by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018, in Pittsburgh.

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, 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.

Hey, Steelers Nation, get the latest news about the Pittsburgh Steelers here.

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Steelers
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.