Steelers: Roosevelt Nix, superstar-ish?


The Steelers had one rookie stand out above the rest last year. Roosevelt Nix, proved himself a capable, above average starter and the most important rookie that year. He just happened to play the least important position.

The best rookie last year may not have been who you expected. In fact, I doubt anyone at all, except for maybe Roosevelt Nix’s parents, and even then maybe not, would have though Nix was going to have the biggest impact on the team. Let’s give a little credit and ask where this is going.

But first, let’s take a minute to appreciate what we’re appreciating here.

Nix’s Past

To fully understand Nix and how extraordinary what’s going on with him is let’s rewind a little bit and then come back … to the future. Boom.

Nix is the son of another NFL aspirant. His father was an 8th (not a typo) round pick in 1992 by the Bengals. In 94 he played for the Vikings. Then after a couple practice squad years with a couple teams he spent some time playing arena football. His father did run into some legal trouble for failing to make child support payments. His mother was also a college athlete.

Nix was born and raised in Ohio, a state many Steelers players have some connection to. He, like James Harrison and Jack Lambert before him, attended Kent State. He started turning heads immediately with his play. At defensive end he got 10 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and a league leading 20 tackles for loss. He was MAC Defensive Player of the Year and All-MAC first team.

Nix would go on to be the 5th player in MAC history to earn All-MAC first team in all four of his years. He had a nose for the ball, instincts, and smarts. He beat everyone off the line and he hit very hard. Nix had football written all over him. But there was one problem. He was 5’11”, 248 lbs.

So upon entering the draft Nix switched to linebacker. There might not be a lot of 5’11” linebackers, but there are a lot more than there are 5’11” defensive ends. He still did not get drafted. If only there were still 8 rounds. Nix had football written all over him. There’s just nothing you can do with a guy with his skill set and size.

He fell in the classic small school trap. Think about a kid who is 6’4″ and likes basketball. If this kid grows up in a small town he’ll learn some post moves and play center. He will not go to the NBA, or even college to play ball, at that position, at that size. If he grows up at a big school, who maybe recruits a bit, one of those that gets games on ESPN, then he’ll learn how to dribble and shoot.

It’s not anyone’s fault necessarily. The coach of whatever team is only doing what’s best for that team. They’re utilizing the skills in a way that makes the team best able to win, not to get it’s players in a professional league.

So Nix got picked up by the Falcons and publicly, as shown on Hard Knocks, did not make the team. Despite entering at linebacker he switched again to fullback in order to better position himself to make the team. Obviously that didn’t work out but his brief exposure to that side of the ball would later pay off.

During the 2014 season, which Nix was not able to make his rookie year, he played for the arena football Cleveland Gladiators. He also taught at his alma mater and coached football. He briefly considered attending the police academy. This was not to be. He was signed by the Steelers last January.

Nix’s Present

Nix again entered the NFL as a linebacker. But at inside linebacker, the position Nix was going out for, the Steelers were stacked. With Timmons and Shazier, and Williams and Spence behind them the Steelers did not need help there. Throw in Terrance Garvin and that part of the depth chart is bursting at the seams. So the Steelers stuck him at fullback.

The Steelers, under Todd Haley, and even before that with Bruce Arians, do not really use fullbacks. They’ll occasionally use an H-back, a David or Will Johnson, to play a hybrid TE/FB role but a full time fullback hasn’t really been part of the team since Dan Kreider. So despite being listed as a fullback, if he was going to win a job, it was going to be on special teams.

That’s exactly what he did. Nix was officially listed as a fullback but like many other players listed as cornerbacks, safeties, or linebackers, he’s really a special teams player, at least at first. If the balls taking kicks you’ll find Roosevelt Nix.

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Nix stood out as a special teamer. He made a number of plays in preseason, the most notable of which was a blocked kick. Nix did show flashes of fullback potential. The same skills that make him great at special teams, the ability to move well in space and be aware, coupled with old fashioned hard hitting, also translated well to fullback.

Once the season started Nix continued as a special teams standout. He also continued to grow as a fullback. He really began to stand out when Williams began carrying the ball as his style is more suitable to an offense that uses a fullback.

He was not able to finish the season due to a foot injury but he had made his mark. Special teams coach Danny Smith said of Nix, to Bob Labriola of, “He’s an excellent player. I’m going to miss him. I’m going to miss him bad. He loves football, he’s a real football player. He can do a lot of things. He’s a good teammate, a good person, he’s a tireless worker. Those kind of guys you feel bad for. I love the guy. I love what he does. I love what he does for this organization. I love what he has done for this team. And I love coaching him.”

So … Danny’s a fan.

When it was all said and done Nix played in 15 games and started 4. He had nine tackles and two forced fumbles on special teams. As a fullback he had two receptions for 16 yards. Matt Miller’s NFL 1000 had Nix listed as the 7th best fullback in the league.

Nix’s Future

So Nix was signed again this offseason. The Steelers were happy enough with his performance that they felt comfortable letting Will Johnson go. Nix is only signed to a one year contract though. Ultimately, he’s still kind of a man without a home when it comes to position.

Unlike DeAngelo Williams, Le’Veon Bell does not really work with a fullback. Despite Nix’s talent, the Steelers, and in Nix, are in an odd position, a crossroads of sort. Nix proved he was capable of making the team, now he must prove he is good enough to warrant changing the offense.

The team must either adapt to Nix, or Nix to the team, or his current contract will be his last.

In the first scenario Nix makes Le’Veon Bell better. That seems impossible. But, recall as good as the Steelers offense is, the red zone is too often an issue, translating yards into points. But if Nix could be a hammer for Bell, and then the two redwoods on each side called James and Green, the Steelers could be unstoppable inside the 20.

There’s also the possibility that Nix is able to transition into more of a Will Johnson/David Johnson type role where they can also play a tight end or wing spot and do some in line blocking. It’s no coincidence that David Johnson was signed back. It’s in case Nix cannot play so well at full back to change the offense, and also cannot play well enough at tight end to takeover for Will Johnson.

It’s no doubt Nix is a great fullback and a great special teams player. But even behind Williams he wasn’t present for a majority of the run plays. Having a great fullback is like having a great appendix. It’s just not as necessary or useful as it used to be.


So the Steelers have a superstar in Nix. He’s such a great fullback that he’s making the Steelers reevaluate whether or not they need a fullback. Unfortunately, the default is no.

The Steelers will have to tweak the offense in order to accomodate Nix. In order to do that Nix must justify it by being so good he makes Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers offense better. There are opportunities in places like the red zone to do that.

He can also take on more of the Johnson and Johnson role of the TE/FB/ST hybrid. In this way, he would be adapting to the Steelers rather than the other way around. Ultimately it will likely be a combination of both if the Steelers are going to stick with Nix.

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Nix has been adapting and surviving for years. We’ll have to see what happens obviously but Nix could quietly be changing the Steelers are maybe accidentally helping to revive the position of fullback.