Appreciative Keion Adams seeks spot in Steelers linebacker rotation
By not selecting an outside linebacker in the NFL Draft, the Steelers gave a vote of confidence to untested second-year player Keion Adams.
It was a gesture Adams, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, appreciated.
It also was one he vowed not to take for granted.
“It definitely made me feel better about the situation, but you can never get too comfortable,” Adams said at the end of minicamp. “Just because (they didn't draft anyone) doesn't mean things can't change. Things always change in this league. For me, I knew they had confidence in me, so it made my confidence go up even more, but it doesn't mean much more than that.”
In less than four weeks, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Adams will report to his second training camp intent on earning a spot on the 53-man roster. T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree are the starters, and veteran Anthony Chickillo is the top backup. Adams will be trying to hold off a handful of former practice-squad players and undrafted free agents for the fourth spot.
In a sense, Adams will be starting over. He injured his shoulder early in training camp last summer. When it failed to heal, Adams had surgery to repair a torn labrum. The former seventh-round pick from Western Michigan spent the year on the sidelines and in the trainer's room.
General manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin thought enough of Adams to keep him employed rather than give him an injury settlement and send him home. That told Adams he was part of the Steelers' long-range plans.
“The way they huddled around me, made sure I was in the building, coming to meetings, being on the sideline for every game and out there at practice, I knew they hadn't forgotten about me,” he said. “It was like, ‘We might not need you this year, but we will need you next year, so make sure you are ready.”
The numbers at outside linebacker dwindled when James Harrison was released in late December and veteran backup Arthur Moats wasn't resigned after the season. Adding depth in free agency or the draft seemed to be a likely scenario.
Still, Colbert addressed other defensive areas in free agency. After the draft, he admitted one reason the Steelers didn't take an outside linebacker was because of Adams.
“You always had him in the bank,” Colbert said. “And we know he's really another seventh-round pick in our eyes for this season. So we'll see where he goes.”
Adams was a full participant from the first day of organized team activities. It was his first on-field activity since August.
“I didn't know what to expect with the shoulder,” he said. “It the first time hitting the bags, and the main thing was to go out there and see what I could do, if I was limited. You don't know what is going to happen until you give it your all, and that's what finally happened. Once I got over that hump, it took off.”
How far it continues to take off for Adams remains to be seen. At Western Michigan, he had 14 1⁄2 sacks and 32 tackles for loss in 50 games. As a senior, he had 7 1⁄2 sacks and 17 tackles for loss (tops in the Mid-American Conference). The Steelers are hoping that, despite a year off, Adams can resume those kind of pass-rushing skills and potentially push Watt and Dupree for playing time.
“He's been in the system and learned for a year, and he's biting at the bit to get out there,” outside linebackers coach Joey Porter said. “We haven't seen him in a preseason game. What I think of him is good, but until he puts it on tape, we'll just wait for it to come around.”
Adams spent most of the voluntary offseason practices and mandatory minicamp working on the second team, sometimes with Chickillo, sometimes with former practice-squad player Farrington Huguenin.
“It has helped because I'm out there more,” Adams said. “I'm the type of learner that I have to really do it for me to actually learn it, and that comes with playing the game. If you are sitting down or watching things in the back and you're not getting the reps, it's hard in certain situations to go out there and expect to do the same thing as someone who has 20 reps compared to your three.
“It's definitely getting me more comfortable.”
Although he has the same lack of NFL experience as this year's draft class, Adams doesn't put himself in their category.
“I'm not a first-year guy anymore. I'm a second-year guy,” he said. “I'm holding myself, as well as the coaches, to higher expectations of what I can do. I have to take advantage and make sure I am doing the same things I was doing last year that got to the point where they wanted to keep me. I have to continue to grow and build on top of that and make sure I don't decrease at all.”