No doubt many of the BTSC faithful will be shocked at reading this headline and seeing the article comes from me. I have thundered the boards for years for the Pittsburgh Steelers to draft an inside linebacker high in the draft. General manager Kevin Colbert keeps dashing my hopes year after year and the Steelers defense pays the price. Tight ends, running backs and slot wideouts keep getting easy yardage against the Steelers poor covering inside linebackers.
So what has changed? The situation with the Steelers current inside linebacker crew, and it is not because I love them.
Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, after struggling early in his career in coverage, was finally rounding the corner when he was hurt in 2017. His paired mate at linebacker, Vince Williams, has always been a liability in coverage and was torn to shreds last season. Pittsburgh asked Williams to play over 80% of the snaps in seven of the 14 games he played in.
Jon Bostic and L.J. Fort played their fair share of coverage snaps and neither was consistent enough to be counted upon. Bostic remains in a backup role, while Fort has moved on.
Rolling into 2019, the Los Angeles Rams cap casualty, Mark Barron looks to solidify the inside linebacker role. While his recent Pro Football Focus grades and tape are ugly, his salary should prohibit Pittsburgh from sitting him in 2019 or cutting him or having him as a backup in 2020. Just like Williams, The duo may end up being the starters, through thick and thin the next two seasons.
Even if one of the Devins are available at pick No. 20, which most “draft experts” do not think will happen, how does Colbert justify restructuring Williams and signing Barron to deals that make them too expensive to be backups in 2019 and too expensive to cut?
Both will count over $3.8 million in 2019, hefty money for backups on a cap-strapped Steelers team. How does Colbert try to get fans on board with using a first rounder on a guy with no clear path to being the starter?
Williams carries a 2020 cap hit of $7 million with over $6 million in dead cap if Pittsburgh were to move on. Barron’s cap hit is over $8 million while carrying a $2.8 dead money cap hit if cut. There is no way if they are both still with the Steelers in 2020 that either would make sense to be backups.
Whose cap hit does the team eat in 2020 to get the rookie on the field? Or does he actually sit for two whole seasons?
The Steelers are under the 2020 cap by over $58 million. So who cares about $2.8 million in dead money? There are seven current starters who are free agents in one form or another who are not counting toward that total. One of those mouths to feed will be a very expensive Ben Roethlisberger.
The other aspect that comes into play, is would a rookie inside linebacker play even if he acclimates to the NFL? First and second down are probably not happening because of two expensive veterans atop the depth chart, right? Third down would be the most likely scenario. If the rookie would become the Steelers dime backer, who would have the green dot and call the plays? Is defensive coordinator Keith Butler going to leave that task up to a rookie? For much of the 2019 season, Williams remained on the field as he communicated the plays and set the adjustments. Butler used T.J. Watt in coverage over 100 times last season so Williams would not be a liability in coverage. Would the team change the scheme so drastically to get a rookie on the field?
I am absolutely baffled why the Steelers felt the need to restructure Williams in the first place. Terrible in coverage and only average stopping the run. I have bashed VW mercilessly for three years now, and after the restructure it is hard to see him not in the starting lineup the next two seasons.
Many were excited by the acquisition of Barron. Not me. Not with his struggles the past two seasons. Barron is not the same player who was stuffing the stat sheet four years ago with quality plays. But what if he rekindles his career? How does he sit in 2020? (Not holding my breath.)
If Colbert did not restructure VW or bring in Barron, I would be solidly on the inside linebacker train. There is little room for such a player to play now in 2019. The Steelers do not need a special teamer with huge draft capital eating up 200 snaps this season. That would give the team only two seasons to evaluate to see if the player was worth spending a lot of money on a fifth year or extension. The team needs a first-round selection who will be a difference maker this season. For a team that has not finished the postseason with a win since 2008.