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Analyzing the Mack ILB Position, and available prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft

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Forget the position names. What are the roles that need to be filled in the middle of the Steeler defense?

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor’s Note: All statements regarding football X’s and O’s were reviewed and corrected by Cliff Harris Is Still A Punk. He counts as co-author even if the system won’t include his name. You should absolutely read this in conjunction with his fabulous piece on Cover-2 Safeties from the following week.)

There’s all but universal agreement that Mack ILB (the gap left by Ryan Shazier) is the Steelers’ biggest hole. Bostic is an adequate band aid but he’s not a star, he has a significant history of games missed to injury, and there is no depth behind him.

What is a Mack ILB?

Most of you know that I’m a lawyer in my real life. Here’s a lawyer’s truism for you. In the end, most disputes come down to defining the term that you’re arguing about. So what exactly do we mean by all these terms? What are the differences between a Buck ILB, a Mack ILB, or those various “hybrid” positions like Nickle- and Dime ILB, or Box- and Strong Safety?

In brief, the Buck ILB (Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich, and late-career Lawrence Timmons) is an off-ball linebacker who focuses 70% of his attention on heading downhill in run support and/or an inside blitz. He’s the guy who mans up when Rosie Nix comes barrelling forward hellbent on justifying his existence, and some poor soul has to stop him cold at the line of scrimmage. In the absence of a careening fullback they routinely take on pulling guards, crash into gaps the offensive is trying to clear, make the tackle on inside runs, and blitz up the middle on pass plays. The other 30% of their job is coverage duty on backs and TE’s. Buck ILB’s tend to play in the 245 range because they need that mass to survive the constant impacts. Bigger size tends to mean they are slightly mismatched in coverage; not completely lost like a lineman would be, but likely to have a real tough time. The moral of the story: “Don’t get fooled, but if you must get fooled do it stopping the run.”

Mack ILB’s have more and more varied duties based on a 50/50 split in attention. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Field general. Mack ILB’s are the defensive QB that makes all the calls. Leadership skills and football IQ are at a bigger premium here than anywhere else on the defense. The Buck ILB can handle this, but it works better if it’s the Mack because that’s the player who’ll have to adjust the most. They have to read more keys than Buck ILB’s and can’t afford to focus as heavily on downhill run support.
  • Run support. Mack ILB’s are the run-and-chase specialists who shoot through lateral gaps to catch RB’s and screens heading toward the edge. Burst speed and football IQ are the premium skills here, which is why Mack ILB’s typically play in the 230-240 range and are built a little lighter than Buck ILB’s. This is balanced by the need to defeat blockers and make the tackle when you get there. It’s a constant trade off that drives film watchers crazy. The extra mass dropped to gain extra speed tends to cause issues getting away from O-linemen who reach the second level, and obviously removes some oomph when the Mack ILB reaches the ball carrier. This is where Shazier got criticized.
  • Coverage duties. Mack ILB’s routinely cover all the escape hatch and check down throws, along with zone coverage duties in the middle of the field. And just to complicate things, modern offenses will often convert those patterns into something like a TE seam route that calls for defensive back skills like change of direction, top notch click-and-close burst to tackle the catch before a slot receiver can dart away, and enough foot speed to keep up with receiving oriented TE’s.

Moral of the story: “Don’t get fooled, and if you get fooled react and adjust really, really fast.”

The next step on the continuum gets to the hybrid LB/Safety types. The biggest are the “Nickel LB’s”. These are true, if usually undersized Linebackers with serious coverage chops (for a Linebacker). Nickel LB’s replace some bigger player in likely pass situations (the Buck ILB, an OLB, or Defensive Lineman, but I can’t be more precise because there are many dozens of variations in these sub packages). A Nickel LB who’s exceptional at coverage may even act as a third Safety. Run stuffing 40%, Pass coverage 60%. This shades over into “Dime LB,” which is more usually manned by an oversized Safety than an extra-quick Linebacker. Call it 30/70. Classic Strong Safeties come in at more like 20/80.

There was an era when hybrid types occupied a starting role on many defenses under the name “Box Safety.” Box Safeties were supposed to be the do-all answer to whatever midfield adjustments the defensive play call required. E.g., Take the Steelers’ beloved Fire-X cross blitz where the Buck and Mack ILB’s cross stunt behind the NT. On those plays the Box Safety became the primary run-fitter at the 2nd level, coming downhill at the snap and thinking run-first. And he’d better be a good tackler, because the RB can hit a seam and be off to the races if that stunt gets picked up. Other coverage schemes – and you want to leave the QB wondering before the snap – ask the Box Safety to become an alley player guarding against flat routes by RB’s and seam routes by TE’s. That’s typical on stunts from the OLB’s. Then on the next play he might have been asked to drop back into cover-3 against a heavy personnel group, or to be the “force” player against runs toward the edge or passes into the flat where the Mack is likely to get swallowed by one of those extra offensive linemen.

Once upon a time Pittsburgh had a single player who could do all of these things at an expert level. He excelled at everything from taking on kickout blocks to tackling in space, manning the 2nd level like a linebacker, covering tight ends like a Corner, and dropping back in Cover-2 like an extra Free Safety. His versatility and burst toward the play put the fear of God into opposing QB’s because he made it all but impossible to make a pre-snap read on what the defensive scheme would really be. And (after an almost pitiful rookie year) he developed such a high football IQ that he regularly turned the tables and managed to predict what the opposing QB was going to do. There is a reason Troy Polamalu is going into the HOF about three seconds after he’s eligible.

The “Box Safety” name has died out in favor of sub package roles because there aren’t that many Troys in the universe. The writing went up on the wall when even the players started to describe themselves with terms like,“too small to play linebacker and too slow to play safety.” Modern defenses get better results by dividing the duties among multiple sub-package role players than hoping to find a King of All Trades. But those roles still have to be filled - each and every one - or the opponent will pick that little weakness apart. And modern offenses have developed numerous plays to focus on the soft spot in any given defense. The downside of sub-packages is their tendency to make the defense’s strengths and weaknesses just a little clearer to a smart QB. Athletes who can play multiple roles let the defense disguise its plan. But they aren’t as common as any coach would prefer.

The next steps on the gradient would be “Free Safety” and “Corner Who Can Tackle” but we won’t go there. One hopes that the point has been made already. NFL starters have the ability to fill several roles at once, and versatility is a big part of the difference between ‘starter’ and ‘star.’ Sub package players exist for situations where their focused expertise is worth the tradeoff for telling the offense what you’re doing. Just to use two examples, Morgan Burnett is a Strong Safety whose skills let him play Dime ILB too, while still having enough speed to play Cover 2. Think late-career Polamalu. Moving up toward the line we see that Ryan Shazier, all joking aside, lived at the Mack ILB position but had the versatility to play Nickel and Dime ILB with equal facility, and really might have served as an emergency-only Safety.

What Roles Do the Steelers Need to Fill?

In the ideal world, every role would be manned by a quality starter, a quality backup pushing for snaps, and a defensive multitool for emergency situations. Here is a list of the roles we just defined and the current players who man them.

  • Buck ILB’s. Williams, Matakevich, and Moats. IMHO, they are all quite good at the 70% of the job that aims forward, but can be exposed in the 30% that requires coverage skills.
  • Mack ILB’s. Bostic and Ryan Shazier’s ghost. Bostic has injury issues and the ghost won’t help before 2019, if then. Major hole.
  • Nickel ILB’s. Bostic and L.J. Fort. Major hole.
  • Dime ILB’s. Burnett, but only if the team plays single high safety (Davis on his own) or brings in Wilcox or Dangerfield. Major hole. A superior prospect with Free Safety skills would make things more comfortable by improving the player next to Davis, but that would leave Wilcox and Dangerfield as the only options for the Dime if Burnett got hurt.
  • Strong Safety. Burnett, Davis, Wilcox & Dangerfield. Could be worse.
  • Free Safety. Davis. Maaaaybe Wilcox, Sutton or Allen. Significant hole because of the question marks.
  • Corner Who Tackles. Davis, Sutton, Hilton and hopefully Allen. Burns is working on it but hasn’t arrived, and Haden has the will but not the size.

I hope that explains why people are so focused on the Mack ILB and Safety positions even after the team has added two able free agents to stem the bleeding. The team needs a true 50/50 Mack ILB because Bostic has his limits and injury history, is already into his veteran years, and there is no depth behind him. The team could use a #3 Mack too because Macks (or monster Safeties) are the ones who do double duty in the Nickel ILB role.

Burnett does a great job as a combination Dime LB and Strong Safety, but he also has an injury history and isn’t a spring chicken in football years. We really need depth at Dime ILB. And there is really no good backup at Free Safety except our speculations about The Little Corner Who Could.

So the bad news is, there are lots of roles to be filled. The good news is that all of them are for young studs, depth, or improvement to players who are only ‘okay.’ The starting core is solid with only Davis’ move to Free Safety as a potential hiccup. Thus the trick will lie in covering all of those holes as well as possible, and with as few players as the team can get away with.

Draft targets.

This happens to be an exceptional class for Mack, Nickel, and Dime ILB prospects, both at the top end and in depth. Here are some names to consider:

ROUND 1 PROSPECTS

BUCK/MACK/NICKEL ILB’s. These are freak athletes built like Buck ILB’s but possessing the movement skills and speed of a Nickel ILB. They should end up as better tacklers than Shazier and will end their careers by shifting over to the Buck position. If Shazier comes back, they will have zero problem shifting over to be a Williams/Matakevich player with all the plus athleticism that keeps those guys from being stars instead of starters. These young men may be a little vulnerable in pass situations compared to the Mack/Nickel types, but not by much because of their extraordinary gifts.

  • Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech. 6’5”, 253 lbs. The freak of freaks. You can even add Edge Rusher to his list of positions! We’re talking ‘Troy Polamalu at off-ball linebacker’ if he hits his potential. Holy four letter word Batman. And he really has just a single flaw: youth. Whoever drafts Tremaine Edmunds will have a lot of rapid fire teaching to do at a position where football IQ really matters. But very few people doubt he’ll get there, so don’t bother to dream. He’s going to be picked in the Top 10.
  • Leighton Vander Esch, Boise St. [COMBINE, DINNER, PRO DAY, VISIT]. 6’4”, 256 lbs. If Tremaine Edwards got a 100 on the Freak Athlete test, LVE scored a 98. The same analysis applies. His reasonably foreseeable floor is Superb Buck ILB. His ceiling is [dream not lest ye be disappointed]. LVE boosters have to believe in crystallizing what’s only been semi-realized potential so far, but the signs are clear enough for him to be a major fan favorite. He’s likely to be available at 1:28 because his tape shows a much better athlete than Linebacker. Jerry Olsavsky would have the job (and chance) of a lifetime coaching this one.

MACK/NICKEL ILB’s. These are the players raised in college to imitate Ryan Shazier. If Shazier comes back they will be competing with him directly. But how much would a defense suffer from having two Shaziers? They are fast, versatile enough for multiple uses, just about ideal for special teams, and don’t forget that you can have two on the field at the same time when you sub in the Nickel LB.

  • Roquan Smith, Georgia. 6’1”, 236 lbs. Best in the class and at least the equal of where Shazier was as a prospect. Or perhaps a bit more like C.J. Mosley... Whatever. Don’t dream. It would be amazing if he dropped as far as Pick 15.
  • Rashaan Evans, Alabama [COMBINE]. 6’3”, 234 lbs. If Shazier and Smith get a 100 on the Model Mack test, then Evans would get a 97. The regular comparison is to Lawrence Timmons and the couple-of-points disparity goes to football IQ more than physical ability. Give him a few years to study and he just might be every bit as good or better.

ROUND 2-3 PROSPECTS.

Almost all of these players are on our BTSC Big Board with late 2nd or early 3rd grades. I will make no attempt to subdivide them here because those grades are anything but set in stone. The order is alphabetical, not by quality.

BUCK/MACK ILB’s.

  • Uchenna Nwosu, USC. 6’3”, 251 lbs. Maybe? Nwosu is a Buck ILB who straddles the line toward Edge more than the line toward Mack, but he is close enough for honorable mention. Doubly so because he has so much else to offer. Nwosu’s a very Steelerish football player who’d be a fringe-1st in our eyes if the team needed a true Buck as much as it needs a Mack.

MACK/NICKEL ILB’s.

  • Jerome Baker, Ohio State. 6’2”, 229 lbs. Very athletic but even lighter than most.
  • Oren Burks, Vanderbilt. 6’3”, 233 lbs. Fits the mold but a bit shy on oomph.
  • Shaun Dion-Hamilton, Alabama [COMBINE]. 6’0”, 230 lbs. Your author’s draft crush. The unquestioned leader of Alabama’s defense with startling ability as a cover-LB and field general. His 2016 season ended with an ACL, and his 2017 ended with broken knee cap. Was he injury-bit or injury-prone? The concern has him listed as a Round 4-5 talent on most other boards but they are wrong and I am right, so there.
  • Malik Jefferson, Texas [VISIT]. 6’3”, 236 lbs. Fringe-1st physical tools better than anyone else in this tier, but hounded by persistent rumors that even a college defense pushed the limits of his football IQ. It all comes down to the interviews. He’s either the primary Round 2 target or off the board completely.
  • Darius Leonard, S.C. State. 6’2”, 234 lbs. A very promising talent but he’s actually built a bit smaller than his weight. People question whether his frame will let him play strong enough to survive the NFL game as a starting Mack.
  • Fred Warner, BYU [SENIOR BOWL]. 6’3”, 227 lbs. [He apparently lost weight for the Combine]. Great coverage skills for a linebacker with superb click-and-close talents, but also on the smaller side. He’d be an ideal #2 Mack and #1 Nickel ILB, but can he survive as a #1 Mack? Superior film as a 4-3 OLB makes him a potential pick at 2:28 who’s unlikely to be available in Round 3.

ROUND 4-5 PROSPECTS.

The Steelers have picks at 5:11 and 5:28, but none in Round 4 without trading up.

BUCK/MACK ILB’s.

  • Genard Avery, Memphis. 6’1”, 255 lbs. Probably more of an Edge Rusher than anything else, but if drafted he could learn to be an Arthur Moats or Matakevich as well.
  • Josey Jewell, Iowa. 6’1”, 235 lbs. He really belongs in a 4-3, probably as a Sam where he’d easily (imho) earn a starting job. Size issues limit his ability to excel as a 3-4 Buck, and limited athletic skills raise doubts about his fit as a potential Mack. Only included here because he’ll be a fan favorite wherever he goes. A fine football player whose profile doesn’t mesh as well with Pittsburgh’s approach as you’d like.
  • Chris Worley, Ohio State [VISIT]. 6’2”, 230 lbs. A player you’d love a few rounds earlier if he only had enough pure athletic talent to play Mack or enough size to play Buck. Alas, but he’s caught dead in between. Gritty, tough and determined but on the small side for a Buck.

MACK/NICKEL ILB’s.

Yes Virginia, there are a lot of Macks in this year’s draft. They all have flaws or they wouldn’t be available on Day 3, but they’d also serve as perfectly adequate depth with a chance to be more.

  • Joel “Iggy” Iyiegbuniwe, W. Kentucky [VISIT]. 6’1”, 229 lbs. A solid, not flashy, mid-round Mack ILB with sideline-to-sideline speed, adequate coverage ability, and surprising physicality for his size.
  • Dorian O’Daniel, Clemson [VISIT]. 6’1”, 215 lbs. A pure Nickel/Dime ILB who’d might play Mack in a pinch but probably wouldn’t excel over the course of a year. A legendary special teams demon in college.
  • Tegray Scales, Indiana. 6’0”, 230 lbs. The Matakevich of Macks. He has everything you want but the extra burst of foot speed. Many will object that he ought to be a fringe-3rd.
  • Shaquem Griffin, Central Florida. 6’1”, 227 lbs. Might be higher if there were no question marks about the level of competition and the missing hand. Straddles the line between Nickel- and Dime ILB with the potential to play Mack as well. One could argue that he deserves extra credit because that 4.38 speed might let him play a bit of Strong Safety. It isn’t just the storyline that has folks so intrigued.
  • Skai Moore, South Carolina. 6’2”, 226 lbs. A Day 2 Mack- and Nickel ILB talent who’s dropped to Day 3 grade because of residual worry about a serious 2016 fusion surgery on his neck. He’s also on the smaller side, which helps to explain his very superior coverage skills.

Oversized Safeties Who Can Play Dime ILB

Repeat after me: All those sub package roles overlap. The team has placed a lot of its sub package cards on Morgan Burnett, so it makes sense to get some depth and youth behind him. These are organized according to their rank on the BTSC Big Board.

  • Derwin James, Florida St. 6’3”, 215 lbs. Ain’t Gonna Happen. If he reaches 1:20 and the Steelers don’t trade up I will personally picket the South Side facility. He really would be the Troy Polamalu Box Safety of our dreams.
  • Ronnie Harrison, Alabama [COMBINE]. 6’3”, 214 lbs. This is why the young man causes so much buzz. He has the ‘stuff’ to excel at multiple roles (Free, Strong and Box Safety) and the size to potentially play desperation-Nickel ILB as well. May be available at 1:28, won’t be available at 2:28.
  • Justin Reid, Stanford [COMBINE & VISIT]. 6’1”, 204 lbs. A model of the modern mold in Steeler Safeties. He has the versatility to play both Free and Strong, an on-field attitude that suggests he could play Dime ILB, and enough speed to stretch toward Tackling Corner. Learning under Morgan Burnett would be just about perfect. A wonderful pick at 2:28 because of that versatility. A minor but eminently forgivable reach at 1:28.
  • Jessie Bates III, Wake Forest [COMBINE & PRO DAY]. 6’2”, 195. Mentioned only to make a point. He is your classic center field Free Safety who would let Sean Davis play the versatility role while Morgan Burnett drops down into the box. Not a Dime ILB in his own right.
  • Terrell Edmunds, Virginia Tech [TOMLIN & COLBERT BOTH AT PRO DAY]. 6’2”, 220 lbs. A SPARQ-score superstar who hasn’t put it all together. If he does, he’d be the perfect specimen covering all roles from Free Safety to Dime- and maybe even Nickel ILB. But it’s all projection because he hasn’t done it yet.
  • Kyzir White, W. Va. 6’2”, 216 lbs. A classic Box Safety who isn’t Troy. His home is at Dime ILB. But does he have the versatility to stretch out into a true Safety role, or the size to move in and play Nickel? Those questions are what make him a Round 3 target rather than Round 2.
  • Marcus Allen, Penn St. 6’2”, 202 lbs. Again, a classic Box Safety who doesn’t approach the athleticism required for all the required roles. Is he just a great Dime ILB, or can he stretch out to play Safety and Nickel roles too? He’s got the toughness and attitude, but size and speed really matter against NFL competition.
  • Quin Blanding, Virginia. 6’2”, 215 lbs. A Strong Safety with the size to play Dime ILB. His stock might be higher but for questions about football IQ.
  • Trey Flowers, Okla. St. [COMBINE]. 6’3”, 202 lbs. He’s said that he wants to be a Kam Chancellor type, which translates as “equally good at Strong Safety and Dime ILB with some ability to play Nickel in a pinch.” Intent is well and good but he hasn’t gotten there yet and needs some serious work to fill out that frame.