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How ILB Vince Williams is poised for a breakout season in 2018

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Overshadowed by the players around him at times, Vince Williams could be the next big name at linebacker for the Steelers in 2018

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AFC Championship - Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Vince Williams will begin the 2018 season as the Pittsburgh Steelers' most significant inside linebacker, but it wasn't too long ago that the team was trying to replace him. After attempting to sign Dont’a Hightower in free agency last year, the Steelers appeared to be looking for an upgrade at the position.

While Hightower would go on to play in only five games in 2017 with the New England Patriots due to injury -- the fourth consecutive year he's been unable to complete a full season -- Williams had his best year as a professional. As per Pro Football Focus, Williams led all NFL inside linebackers in sacks and was among the better players in coverage at his position.

“Williams led the league’s inside linebackers with seven sacks (actually recorded eight) and finished fourth in total pressures at 18. The former Florida State product racked up his 18 pressures on just 73 pass-rushing snaps showing, a testament to why he was sent to rush the passer on 20.2 percent of his snaps, or fifth-most among inside linebackers. Williams did not give up a touchdown all season and was seventh in catch rate allowed into his coverage.”

Pass Rush Productivity
Pro Football Focus

Entering the league as a sixth-round draft choice, plenty of voices questioned his ability to make it in the NFL, but Williams continually silences the doubters. Without Ryan Shazier in 2018, the coaching staff will be looking for Williams to emerge as a leader, and the former Florida State product seems more than ready to fill the role.

The outgoing personality that has made Williams a hit with the fans hasn't gone away, as evidenced by his arrival at Saint Vincent College, but there's no mistaking the added focus he has brought to Latrobe this year. True to his word, Williams is staying away from social media and concentrating on improvement, and early reports out of camp have been nothing but positive about his performances in drills.

Set to cost only $2.5 million against the cap this season, Williams current contract will expire in 2019, but he's not letting that distract him from the task at hand. When he's spoken to the media, his answers have been short and sweet, addressing questions about his contract with a simple-but-definitive statement - “I want to die a Pittsburgh Steeler.

A model of reliability, Williams has never missed an NFL game due to injury in five years and he's filled whatever role asked of him, both on special teams and defense -- something he's more than willing to do this year if it ends in a championship. As he told Kevin Gorman of TribLive.

“I’m ready to go, man. I’m not worrying about solidifying myself or anybody’s opinions of what they think I can and can’t do. I’m just trying to be the best linebacker I can be and win the Super Bowl. If that’s doing the same thing as I did last year, that’s what I’m going to do. If my role has to increase, then I’m going to do that, too.”

If the Steelers are to bring a seventh Lombardi back to Pittsburgh, Williams will likely be a key player in the quest for another championship. While his 2017 performance was something of an eye-opener for Steelers Nation, it didn't earn him the national accolades it deserved. Respected by his teammates, but underrated by so many experts outside of the organization, 2018 could be the year when Williams becomes a household name, especially if it ends with a Super Bowl trophy.