Appearances can be deceiving.
A look at the Steelers’ 2016 starting lineup would give you the impression they are comfortable at inside linebacker, with two first-round draft picks manning the two spots in their 3-4 base defense and 2-4-5 nickel. Add to that first-round pick Bud Dupree and former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison at the outside linebacker spots, and there is little reason for the layman to think this linebacker corps is anything but spectacular.
But all is not well in the Land of Linebacker. Not in Pittsburgh, at any rate.
In our last Draft Outlook, we examined the outside linebackers. To recap, Harrison and Jarvis Jones are unrestricted free agents next month, Dupree missed most of the 2016 season, and Anthony Chickillo is an exclusive-rights free agent. There is a possibility that at least three of them could leave this off-season, though that’s unlikely with Harrison and Chickillo. Still, Harrison is creeping closer and loser to 40 years old. At some point somethings gotta give. Outside linebacker is a huge priority this off-season.
But inside linebacker has a few questions, too.
Lawrence Timmons is now a ten-year veteran. Ryan Shazier has yet to play a full season. Backup Vince Williams did a fine job with some spot starts throughout the season, but he is a purpose-built run stopper and can be a liability in coverage. Timmons is better, but is beginning to come back to Earth after a long run as one of the best inside linebackers in the game. He’s also an unrestricted free agent who could get some strong offers from other teams in the open market, and could end up pricing himself out of what the Steelers want to pay to retain his services for another one to three years. There’s even the slim chance he could follow in the footsteps of fellow 2007 first-round pick Patrick Willis, who unexpectedly retired a year ago.
The only other inside linebacker to stay healthy throughout 2016 was then-rookie Tyler Matakevich, who certainly has the ability to excel at the position, but has yet to see much time on the field outside special teams.
The front office did choose to re-sign Steve Johnson last week, but he has been unable to get over the hump in his career so far. Also under contract is Akil Blount, son of Steeler and NFL Hall-of-Famer Mel Blount.
The 2017 NFL Draft isn’t exactly oozing inside linebacker talent, nor is there a paucity of it. The field is decidedly slanted toward the middle rounds of the draft. There is a single player, Reuben Foster of Alabama, who is nearly a consensus first-round pick. Behind him are some borderline players, highlighted by T.J. Watt of Wisconsin, the younger brother of Houston Texans All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt. He’s a tweener who could play inside or outside, giving the Steelers some flexibility in how they deploy their linebackers.
Just behind that group is Raekwon MacMillan, who may be one of my five or so favorite players in this entire draft. As a run stopper, there may be few who are better. He has coverage struggles, though, which would simply perpetuate the issues that have come to light over the last two years with more athletic tight ends, and would unfortunately not be the right fit.
Further down are two intriguing options for inside ‘backers who are solid in coverage: Northwestern’s Anthony Walker and Kansas State’s Elijah Lee. Walker is strong in coverage, while Lee is very athletic and has ideal size for a coverage linebacker, at 6’-3” and 230 pounds.
Near the bottom is one more name that should pique the interest of Steelers fans: Hardy Nickerson, Jr., of Illinois. He transferred there for his senior year to play for his Lovie Smith and his father, who was a standout for the Steelers and Buccaneers in a long NFL career. Junior is a little on the heavier side at 250 pounds, but is still solid in coverage and is a fine tackler.
Ultimately, the fate of Timmons in free agency, as well as their trust in Matakevich to continue growing into the position in the NFL, is going to dictate the Steelers’ draft strategy at inside linebacker. But it should surprise no one if they draft an inside linebacker in round three, four or five, regardless. That’s where the best balance of value and talent is. But if Timmons doesn’t return in 2017? That will blow the early rounds wide open, especially for someone like Watt, who can play anywhere in the linebacker rotation.
Come to think of it, a player like that might be a nice thing to have, even if Timmons is still a Steeler come September.