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Steelers’ young ILBs might prove to be a blessing in disguise

Kevin Colbert admitted the Steelers were targeting a couple of inside linebacker prospects during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. At one point they even tried to trade up to pick one of them, but to no avail. But their failure might prove to be a blessing in disguise.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Sometimes you have to thank God for unanswered prayers. Oftentimes it turns out you didn’t really want what you thought you wanted at the time. Maybe you’re attending your 20-year high school reunion and run into a old flame you haven’t seen in years. You look at them and then look over at your spouse and think, “I dodged a bullet there!” Funny thing is, the old flame might be thinking the same thing about you.

Whatever the situation, the truth is always clear looking back because hindsight is 20/20. We’ve all been guilty of banging the table, so to speak, vehemently hoping for the Steelers to select certain players. Every day, on at least one comment board, someone proclaims “I knew they should have...” about a particular player or situation. We’re more than happy to point out the occasions when we’re proven right, but in no hurry to admit when we get it wrong. That’s human nature and we all can relate.

The Pittsburgh Steelers failed to select an inside linebacker prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft, a position widely considered their biggest area of need, even though they confessed to trying to trade up in the first round to do so. Then, round after round, the Steelers adhered to their best-player-available philosophy, and we can only assume the Steelers’ brass never felt any linebacker candidates fit this description. Their failure to select a linebacker prospect at any point in the draft was widely considered unacceptable throughout Steelers Nation.

But I believe this presumed failure may end up being a blessing in disguise. This firestorm might just have a silver lining because even a horror story can have a happy ending, right?

Undrafted free-agents Matthew Thomas and Ola Adeniyi have been camp darlings and pleasant surprises. They’ve each flashed some serious potential in the preseason contests and they appear to have earned consideration for roster spots. Thomas’ impressive speed and athleticism brings a much needed element to the equation and serves him well in special-teams duties. His position versatility increases his value and may enable the Steelers to retain L.J. Fort, a player who appears much improved since last season and has had a strong camp and preseason. It appears the light may finally have come on for Fort, himself a strong athlete.

These are all positive developments, and they couldn’t have come at a better time for a franchise that has a dirty little secret. For an organization renowned for their linebacker play, the Steelers are surprisingly poor at drafting linebacker talent in the first round. If you look back at the all-time great Steelers linebackers, you might be surprised to learn that none of them was drafted in the first round. I know I sure was.

Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland, Joey Porter, James Harrison, etc. This list is filled with Hall of Famers and all-time great players, but not a single first rounder among them. Also consider that among many solid starters such as Mike Merriweather, Jason Gildon, Bryan Hinkle, David Little and Clark Haggans, none of them were first-round picks.

Actually the Steelers have only drafted six linebackers in the first round in their history, and four of those have happened in the past six years. It’s been a mixed bag of results.

Robin Cole from the University of New Mexico was selected in 1977. He would go on to have a productive career with the Steelers. Cole was a two-time Super Bowl champion and was even an All Pro selection for the 1984 season. He was a solid, if not spectacular, pro and proved to be a fringe, first-round talent.

The Steelers didn’t select another first-round linebacker for thirty years, not until they took Lawrence Timmons from FSU in 2007. The Law Dog proved to be an excellent pick, worthy of his first-round selection. He was a disruptive run stopper who help lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl title in 2008 and he was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2014.

The Steelers took OLB Jarvis Jones from Georgia in 2013 in an ill-advised reach to boost their pass rush. Jones had tested poorly at the combine and there were concerns he lacked the athleticism to excel at the next level. Those concerns proved to have merit as Jones struggled with injuries and the expectations accompanying his lofty draft status. Sadly, Jones career would have to be labeled a bust.

Ryan Shazier’s selection out of Ohio State in 2014 was another excellent first-round pick. Though undersized, his amazing speed allowed him to play sideline to sideline and he quickly became the Steelers main playmaker on defense. Ryan was a Pro Bowl selection in 2016 and 2017, and was on his way to Defensive Player of the Year consideration last season before his devastating injury. Nobody knows what the future holds for Shazier as a player, but he’s proven to be a awesome person and inspirational teammate. A true Pittsburgh Steeler.

The jury is still out on the two first-round linebackers currently on the roster — 2015 selection Bud Dupree from Kentucky and 2017 pick T.J. Watt from Wisconsin. Thus far, Dupree has failed to produce at a level worthy of his draft position, and questions remain as to whether he can reach such a level. Watt had a strong rookie year, and he’ll look to build on that success this season. He appears to have the drive and work ethic needed to take the next step in his development. Watt may hold the key to the ability of the Steelers’ defense to show improvement this season and beyond.

In the meantime, the Steelers might have stumbled on some quality linebacker depth this preseason, and they didn’t need to use a first-round pick to do it.