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Pittsburgh Steelers Offseason Wish List: Inside linebacker

In this series, we examine Pittsburgh’s most pressing offseason needs.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re anything like me, you’re 1,000 percent over the ceaseless onslaught of acidic (and largely redundant) Antonio Brown narratives, which have violently pervaded the innermost reaches of our broader consciousness and metastasized into, like, pure vitriol and contempt. The abruptness with which Antonio Brown went from occasionally ill-tempered, but generally amiable superstar to most hated athlete in the city is stunning, and at this point the most expedient recourse may be a clean split.

But I don’t wanna talk about any of that because a) Brown can’t be moved until March, so any discourse regarding Brown from now until then will be thoroughly rooted in conjecture and b) Antonio Brown is my favorite Steeler ever, and I want him to come back. In the meantime, I’d like to discuss some other things I want, starting with a rangy, explosive, amorphous middle-of-the-formation defender with a skill set that’s multifaceted but mostly analogous to the one possessed by a box safety or modern inside linebacker. Functionally, what I’m seeking is a Ryan Shazier proxy.

I came to this realization sometime during the third quarter of the Steelers’ come-from-ahead loss to the Chargers back in Week 13—a loss that was heavily abetted by defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s unwavering commitment to a doomed game plan that involved deploying L.J. Fort in coverage against Keenan Allen, a near-consensus top-five receiver. In another universe, L.J Fort, thanks to his uncommon blend of size and athleticism, is a lockdown defender, one just as capable of flattening running backs as he is negating the impact of even the league’s most prolific vertical receiving threats. Three years ago, L.J. Fort was this unheralded, 23-year-old, diamond-in-the-rough linebacker with a high ceiling and a starter’s pedigree; today, in our current universe, L.J. Fort is, at best, a core special teams contributor. Also, he’s somehow 29 now. “L.J. Fort” is more of a concept—a suggestion, rather, of what the modern insider linebacker should look like—than he is a tangible entity.

Anyway, getting back on track, the Chargers scorched Pittsburgh’s defense and Allen feasted omnivorously on a rich diet of curl routes, out routes, and go routes. Presumably, Butler made the decision to put Fort on Allen because using middle linebackers to cover wide receivers—particularly larger receivers like Allen—is not a novel concept. However! Unlike, say, the Bears, the Panthers, or the Seahawks, the Steelers do not have apt personnel to do this effectively. (Of course, the Steelers knew this before the 2018 season even started, which makes the fact that they did only the tiniest quantum imaginable—namely, scooping Vince Williams clone Jon Bostic off the Colts’ trash heap for the hilariously low price of $2 million per season—to fill the gaping aperture left behind by Shazier inexcusable. It took the Steelers 11 games to finally come to the obvious conclusion that Bostic is a wholly redundant commodity, which is in itself a damning indictment of the collective aptitude of Pittsburgh’s defensive brain trust.) Williams is a nice inside linebacker, easily the best one on the Steelers, but he’s in possession of a skill set that’s not particularly diverse; he’s a solid-enough tackler and he can defend the run, but that’s basically it. Bostic, likewise, which is probably why he’ll be cut this offseason. Fort is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, but the Steelers’ linebacking ranks are so unbelievably scant that they honestly probably have little choice but to sign him back. Also, Tyler Matakevich is still here, I guess, but he sucks. That’s pretty much the whole squad! The Steelers absolutely have to improve this room during the offseason.

This is the part of the blog where I’d normally launch into a thing about drafting a stud inside linebacker or splurging for one in free agency, but a cursory overview of upcoming unrestricted free agents or the top-rated collegiate prospects yields come grim results. As it stands, LSU’s Devin White is the only inside linebacker prospect generating any significant buzz (he’s a near-consensus top-10 prospect, so unless the Steelers would liquidate some standing assets to move up, it isn’t likely they’d be in a position to draft him, anyway), and most of the elite upcoming free agents—including C.J. Mosley and Kwon Alexander—will probably wind up re-signing with their current teams. It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that, hey, lots and lots of teams are interested in employing nigh-positionless field generals, and teams that find these kinds of players rarely allow them to hit the open market.

Deone Bucannon, most recently of the Cardinals, checks all the boxes for multidimensionality and playmaking ability, but he’s been victimized by injuries and schematic changes over the past couple of seasons. Most likely, he’ll be a free agent in March. I think the Steelers ought to do their homework on him. He’s only 26, he’s demonstrated that he’s a capable and versatile NFL defender (in his second season, Bucannon played safety and linebacker, registering 109 tackles, three sacks, and four forced turnovers), and, most importantly, he could come reasonably cheap.

The Steelers defense has pressing needs across the board—the defensive line is top-heavy, but devoid of depth, the secondary is a leaking diaper, and you can never have enough pass rushers—but I think adding playmakers who can force turnovers and play numerous positions is a great place to start.