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Breaking down the Pittsburgh Steelers Team Needs: Part 2, Inside Linebacker

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Part 2 of a series examining positions and players the Steelers may target in the 2019 draft

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, our season should have ended in February with a Super Bowl parade. No, it didn’t work out that way. Yes, I’m as heartbroken as the rest of Steeler Nation. But looking forward heals the pain faster than chewing on the wounds, so I’m going to instead turn my focus toward figuring out what could make this should-have-been-champions, talent heavy roster get even better for next year.

The first article in this series looked at the Cornerbacks. Now it’s time for the position we were all most worried about at the beginning of the year: the chasm left at ILB by the injury to Ryan Shazier.

Free agency? Ain’t Gonna Happen. The Steelers have the cap space but there’s no one out there to target. Maybe a trade for Sean Lee? Let’s leave that off the table. Here is the current roster:

  • BUCK ILB Vince Williams. Grade = “Solid Starter.” He’s been smart, solid, and less vulnerable in coverage than expected, but he isn’t going to be in anyone’s HOF dreams.
  • BUCK ILB Tyler Matakevich. Grade = “Spot Starter and Special Teams Ace.” A valuable contributor who’s just a step down from VW.
  • MACK/BUCK ILB Jon Bostic. Grade = “Solid Starter.” His versatility may even make him the #2 Buck over Matakevich. A fine piece of the puzzle but, again, not on anyone’s list of eternal talents.
  • MACK/NICKEL ILB L.J. Fort. Grade = “Solid Starter With Potential.” The athlete cometh! Over the season L.J. Fort slowly rose up and seized the fast, cover-capable ILB spot. He’s not Ryan Shazier but he’s as good as most teams have a right to expect.
  • NICKEL ILB/SS Terrell Edmunds. Grade = “Starter with Star Potential”. By the end of 2018 he looked like the real thing but we will have to wait and see if he makes the Sophomore leap that fans expect. The best reinforcement to the overall ILB position could actually be a good Cover-2 Safety who’d make the Big Nickel a favorite formation.
  • NICKEL ILB/SS Morgan Burnett. Grade = “Spot Starter, likely to retire.” Morgan Burnett was a star in Green Bay until the injuries piled up. I was a fan. He came to Pittsburgh and, reduced as he was, still looked like a solid starter... until the injuries piled up yet again. Retirement won’t be a surprise.
  • NICKEL ILB/SS Marcus Allen. Grade = “Unknown but probably a Backup.” He made the 53 all year: Impressive. He didn’t get on the field: not so impressive. Who knows what that really means, but the knock on Marcus Allen hasn’t changed: he has a limited athletic ceiling.
  • NICKEL ILB/SS Jordan Dangerfield. Grade = “Backup and Special Teams.”

Verdict on the roster? Things could be much, much worse and the center of the field didn’t turn out to be the fatal weakness we feared. OTOH it isn’t a strength either. Pittsburgh has no stars at any of these positions unless Terrell Edmunds makes a solid Sophomore Leap. What we have is a string of “mere” starters. Adding a Super-Stud (tm) at any of these positions would definitely raise all boats. There is also a need for pure, developmental athleticism since the Ravens snatched our practice squad superstar Matthew Thomas [grrrr].

Another consideration is who we play in the division. The AFC North has suddenly been populated by mobile Quarterbacks in both Baker Mayfield and Lamarr Jackson. Yes, the essential response to that kind of talent is gap discipline and overall team defense. You beat players like that with smart, variable schemes properly performed by the players. They kill defenses that make mistakes. Stay consistent and they will stay (mostly) contained. That said, the best talents to perform those systems are ILB’s with serious speed and Safeties who can play Big Nickel. Thus adding a Super-Stud or two in the middle of the defense has extra value.

Here is a list of the Day 1 & 2 talent according to an initial draft of the BTSC Big Board that Nick Farabaugh and I have been compiling: [fn]

POTENTIAL SUPER-BUCKS

  • 1:05 BUCK ILB/EDGE Josh Allen, Kentucky. 6’4”, 258 lbs. Remember the debates about LVE in 2018? Get ready for a repeat, but more so. As an Edge player Allen has all the assets you could want in a Top 10 guy limited by only-adequate technique and strength – which are exactly the things good NFL coaching and training can fix. As a hyper-athletic Buck he features range, ability to play in space, and of course an exceptional talent blitzing when necessary. Here is a solid November scouting profile. Honestly: should the grade be 1:01 instead of 1:05?
  • ADDING A TALENT AT EDGE? Surprise! Both TJ Watt and Bud Dupree have athletic talents that would allow them to excel at the Buck ILB position. The questions are (a) could they handle the different and more complicated above-the-neck duties of the position, and (b) would it make sense to let them try it when Edge is at least as important? We will examine the Edge class in another article but this is one of those x-factor ideas to keep in mind.
  • 2:24 ILB Paddy Fisher, Northwestern. 6’4”, 245 lbs. [RETURNING TO SCHOOL]

POTENTIAL SUPER-MACKS

  • 1:10 MACK ILB Devin White, LSU. 6’1”, 255 lbs. Monstrous ceiling based on athletic potential and a proper linebacker’s mindset. See this gif-supported love note scouting report from our sister site for the Jets for an example of what gets people excited. It’s balanced by unbelievable rawness in a D-I player and the inevitable questions about whether that comes from above-the-neck challenges. Interviews will matter a lot. He is also young (a true Junior) and sometimes gets light in the pants when he isn’t headed in a particular direction, which makes football IQ even more important. This early January, 2-reviewer scouting profile examines both the assets and the question marks, making him sound like an ideal run-and-chase tackler but not particularly good in coverage despite his speed. Do the Steelers need a skilled cover-ILB, or would pure speed, range and ferocity be enough?
  • 1:20 ILB/MACK Mack Wilson, Alabama. 6’2”, 239 lbs. Another of those high-IQ Alabama ILB’s who can fly from sideline-to-sideline, work through traffic, evade blocks, tackle whatever he hits in the run game, cover RB’s and TE’s, and lead a defense to victory. He’s going to cause extra debate because, unlike most LB’s, he seems to excel more in the coverage game than in the run game though he isn’t bad at either. The questions go to whether his native athleticism is special enough to carry that success over to the NFL, and how much of his success came from his own merits versus those of the monsters up front who kept him so clean. The Combine will matter a lot.
  • 1:25 MACK ILB Devin Bush, Michigan. 5’11”, 233 lbs. Your humble author predicts that Devin Bush will move up all Boards during the process and end up as a Round 1 target for much of Steeler Nation rather than the Round 2 dream pick he seems to be now. Why? The combination of football IQ, pure athleticism and linebackeresque ferocity is going to outweigh other concerns. The raw talent is just too rare. There aren’t many young players who could really upgrade what Bostic and L.J. Fort can offer. He’s one of them. This New Year scouting profile ends with a Round 1 grade after praising all the physical assets, criticizing his inability to get off blocks, and noting the suspicious lack of both interceptions and fumble creation. This November Draft Network scouting profile agrees, adding that his coverage skills are raw but improving.
  • 2:12 MACK ILB Joe Giles-Harris, Duke. 6’2”, 240 lbs. A good, solid linebacker with enough speed, athleticism and football IQ to handle the job. But… JGH is the sort of prospect who stands out more for being a well rounded player than for any particular physical genius. It’s easy to see him as a multi-year starter, but hard to project any HOF potential.
  • 2:12 MACK ILB Germaine Pratt, N.C. State. 6’3”, 240 lbs. A converted Safety with the size and attitude of a true ILB, and who covers like… well, like a linebacker. He brings both impact and technique to his tackling and has the eye-popping run-and-chase ability that Steeler Nation has been missing. But his actual linebacker skills are as raw as you’d expect from a 1-year player at the position. Getting off blocks is a particular challenge, and it will no doubt take him a while to build his football IQ.
  • 2:24 MACK ILB Ben Burr-Kirven, Washington. 6’0”, 222 lbs. A physical and explosive monster with the agility to cover some slot receivers. He has almost everything you’d want except the NFL size, which inhibits his tackling radius. Jon Ledyard dives into his game here.
  • Round 3 Grades for players including Vosean Joseph, Florida (6’0”, 227 lbs.); Dakota Allen, Texas Tech (6’1”, 235 lbs.); Troy Dye, Oregon (6’4”, 224 lbs.); and Bobby Okereke, Stanford (6’2”, 235 lbs.). These may move up as the process goes forward. Or down, of course.

POTENTIAL SUPER-NICKEL ILB’S

It’s a pretty weak Safety class all told but there are a few worth looking at:

  • 1:15 SS/FS Deionte Thompson, Alabama. 6’2”, 196 lbs. The #1 Safety in the draft and it isn’t particularly close. Thompson is excellent playing in the box, fantastic when asked to play center field, superb coming downhill to make a tackle, as good as any Safety in coverage, and a genuine leader of men in the secondary. He, Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds would give Pittsburgh unbelievable depth and flexibility in the secondary for years to come. Big Nickel could easily turn into the Steelers’ favorite package!
  • 2:12 SS Taylor Rapp, Washington. 6’0”, 212 lbs. May lack the range to play center field but has all the rest you could want in a Safety. Coverage skills plenty good enough for TE’s, RB’s and quite a few WR’s, good angles toward tackles in space and in run support, and a truly nasty attitude when he arrives. It would work... if you believe that Edmunds can fall back and excel as a Cover 2 guy.
  • 2:24 SS/FS Jaquan Johnson, Miami. 5’11”, 190 lbs. Jaquan Johnson is one of those do-everything team leaders and overachievers who just makes plays while floating all other boats that much higher. If his body holds up he will be an inevitable fan favorite and secondary anchor for whatever NFL franchise he lands at. But that’s not a small “if” for this kind of living missile.
  • 3:01 SS/FS Johnathan Abram, Miss. St. 6’0”, 215 lbs. Great size and speed, willing to mix it up, and able to bring the lumber when he gets there – but also likely to miss the tackle completely and has sometimes been a hair slow to read and react to what’s going on. Interviews will matter a lot, especially since the Steelers would see him as a backup and special teams guy. Here is an early January scouting profile.
  • 3:01 FS/SS Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida. 6’0”, 207 lbs. He’s got boatloads of physical talent, range, and was a vastly improved player in 2018 who suddenly learned how to tackle and also take angles. Still inconsistent but now worth serious Day 2 consideration, especially since he has some coverage chops as well as center field range. Here is an early January scouting profile from Jon Ledyard.
  • 3:01 SS/FS Darnell Savage Jr., Maryland. 5’11”, 195 lbs. A savage hitter (pun fully intended) who is exceptional in the box – almost like a mini-linebacker – but a bit vulnerable in coverage. High football IQ helps in both regards, as does excellent athleticism and ball skills. But again, can he hold up if he’s asked to play Nickel ILB instead of just look “almost” like a Nickel ILB? And can either he or Edmunds play at the same level if asked to be the deep Safety in a Cover 2 look while the other plays in the box?

Verdict on the draft class? It’s going to come down to whether a bargain falls into the Pittsburgh lap. ILB Devin White, ILB Mack Wilson, ILB/Edge Josh Allen, and Safety Deionte Thompson could all be irresistible bargains if they fall to the team at 1:20. That could happen too, and probably will, if the 19 teams ahead of Pittsburgh gobble up all the value at Edge and Corner instead. (It’s a top heavy class with a lot of true 1st Rounders on defense). It’s also possible that a guy like ILB Devin Bush will climb toward 1st Round value as we learn more. The kind of calculus applies in Round 2. There may well be one or two real bargains who could fall to 2:20 if the team does not move up to get a favored Corner in that fringe-1st cluster.

What probably won’t happen is a pick at the end of Round 3, or any time in Day 3. The Steelers have too much in the way of both depth and developmental talent to simply add another body to the room. They will not target another contributor; only a potential star.

[FN] For those who don’t know, we organize the BTSC Big Board by a grade called “Highest Value”. An HV of 1:20 means the player is a reach for the Steelers at any point before Pick # 20 overall but good value at any point from the end of the 1st on. Getting that player in the early 2nd would be fine, while getting him at 2:12 would almost be a steal. Yes, this system results in a certain amount of grade inflation for positions of need because we are talking about the “highest” grade rather than where a player is expected to go; but it’s balanced by never, ever pushing a grade up because of need. Players with the same HV# are more-or-less equivalent and organized alphabetically.