Steelers fans all know the names — Lambert, Ham, Greene, Lloyd, Porter, the list goes on. More so than any other franchise, the Steelers seem to always be ahead of the curve when it comes to the position of Linebacker. In the 70’s they had a non-prototypical middle linebacker. He was a lanky, almost too light for the position, angry, fang-toothed maniac who patrolled sideline to sideline like no other, but with a twist. This maniac could not only stuff a hole on fourth-and-one, but he had a knack rarely seen at the time for dropping into pass coverage. His name was Jack Lambert and when he retired he had amassed 28 interceptions, an impressive number even by today’s NFL standards — not to mention a yellow blazer to boot.
In 1982, they drafted Mike Merriweather a “new age” linebacker for his time, his specialty being sacking the quarterback. Coincidentally, this was also the first year the NFL started to keep statistics on sacks, and Merriweather accumulated 31 in six seasons, with 15 coming in 1984 alone. Ironically, another linebacker by the name of Lawrence Taylor (also known for his sacks) was drafted in 1981 by the NY Giants and didn’t achieve double-digit sacks until he posted 11.5 in 1984. By the time the 90’s rolled around, Pittsburgh became a linebacker laboratory headed by Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene. Inserted into the 3-4 defensive scheme, they soon set the tempo for what other teams around the league wanted to emulate. There also was Levon Kirkland, drafted in 1992 — a 6-foot-1 LB who played at weights ranging between 275 and 300 Lbs (that’s not a misprint). Kirkland possessed great speed and agility for his size, and soon became recognized as one of the top inside linebackers in the league. In 1994, the Steelers drafted Jason Gildon, a defensive lineman from Oklahoma State who they converted to Linebacker, and he too would become a premiere player in the NFL. He actually worked out so well that, in 1999, the Steelers went back to the well and drafted another defensive lineman from Colorado State University by the name of Joey Porter. He followed suit by becoming an outstanding linebacker and team leader for the Pittsburgh Steelers, taking them into the 2000s where the Steelers once again developed a linebacking terror named James Harrison, who went undrafted but would eventually attain legendary status throughout the sports world. They coupled Harrison with yet another defensive lineman from the University of Michigan in 2007 when they converted LaMarr Woodley to an outside linebacker and went on to claim a championship.
Beyond 2010, the NFL continued to develop into more of a pass-oriented league, utilizing multiple “spread-offenses” and attacking the middle of the field through the air. This turned the once-vertical game into more of a horizontal contest, and the once-coveted immoveable middle or interior linebacker position had begun to morph into different variations from team to team. Some were known as “athletic linebackers” while others were deemed “tweeners” a hybrid of linebacker with the fluid hips of a safety (not unlike a Troy Polamalu — but that’s an article for another day). In 2014, with Steelers Nation expecting the draft pick to be a much-needed and discussed cornerback, the Steelers selected Ryan Shazier, for some, a head-scratching pick at the time. What the Steelers apparently saw in Shazier was a ridiculously athletic smaller interior linebacker with wide-receiver speed and the ability to jump out of a gymnasium.
Once again, the Steelers had eschewed conventional wisdom on the linebacker position and rewrote the handbook for the type of athlete that would become the next wave of sought-after players in the NFL. Obviously, we all know the unfortunate accident that befell Shazier last season, and every fan of the game is wishing him a full recovery and all the best. Keep in mind that, at the time of Shazier’s injury, he was making a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year consideration with 68 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, 3.5 sacks and 11 passes defended. Last season, the Steelers connected once again, finding linebacker success with the selection of T.J. Watt and proving again that they can still score quality while slotted in the latter portion of the first round (the Steelers have not had a top-10 pick in a draft since 2000).
This brings us to this year’s draft, with the Steelers eyeing linebacker as a position of need, but opting for a safety. In fact, they didn’t use any of their picks to select a linebacker but, in true Steelers’ fashion, they signed two UDFA. Matthew Thomas, a former No. 1 linebacker recruit in 2013 from Florida State University, has shown flashes of playmaking ability in college — especially during his junior and senior seasons. He also had a very strong showing at this year’s combine and led FSU in tackles the last two years. He has a tall lanky build (6-foot-3, 232 pounds) that could stand to add muscle, but there’s no doubting his athleticism. Thomas is a productive force on the field. The other UDFA comes by way of a more familiar scenario. He is an undrafted defensive end/outside linebacker from the Mid-American Conference who, coincidentally, was wearing No. 92 at the rookies’ minicamp just last weekend. His name is Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, another “linebacker project” for the Steelers — a natural pass rusher with an energetic, aggressive style. He too proved to be productive for his team in college. He weighs in at 6-foot-1, 250 pounds and has been described as a “very young, fleet, pass-rushing terror with a game to suit the times.” It will be interesting to see if the Steelers can continue their time-honored tradition at the linebacker position by uncovering hidden gems. Only time can tell.