With the 2020 NFL Draft less than a week away, a consensus for the biggest area of need for the Pittsburgh Steelers has yet to become apparent amongst Steelers Nation. Considering the recent additions procured during a successful free agency period, the myriad of dissenting opinions makes perfect sense. There are no glaring areas of immediate need, at least not at a starting position.
This was not the case prior to last year's draft. The Steelers obvious position of great need for an injection of youthful talent was the inside linebacker position. The problem was the fact there were only two prospects considered sure things at the position, players capable of contributing immediately once seeing the field. Plug and play types if you will.
It was the intriguing tale of the two Devins, and I was completely invested. As well documented, the Steelers went against their own nature and traded up to acquire ILB Devin Bush. The results speak for themselves. Bush was an All Rookie selection at the position and his potential is impossible to ignore. His football instincts, speed, and sideline to sideline pursuit abilities are truly unique. His pass coverage skills will only improve with experience and specified coaching.
If Bush's rookie season was so impressive and his future appears so bright, why do so many prognosticators feel that inside linebacker is still a position of need? Because while there is undoubtedly talent at the position, it is mainly young and unproven.
Bush's running mate at ILB, Vince Williams, is anything but young or unproven. Williams is a proven veteran, the known commodity if you will, warts and all. He is the thumper of the linebacker position, a wreaking ball of a player obsessed with arriving at the ballcarrier with bad intentions. Williams is a Great White shark and the opposition has chummed the water. This ultra aggressive approach has served Williams well against the running game, the passing game not so much. The Steelers usually substitute for him in obvious passing situations, or utilize his effective bull rush if left on the field.
Last season, when Williams wasn't on the field, Mark Barron was manning the position. The former safety turned linebacker Barron was brought in mainly for his coverage ability, and as a stand in/mentor for protege Bush, at least until the young man was ready to assume the mantle. Barron was a mixed bag of results, struggling in his assigned role to begin the season, only to show improvement as the defense started to gel as the season progressed. Barron was released in a salary cap move prior to free agency, with Bush ready to ascend to stardom. Barron is currently a free agent, and will probably be signed by a team with a need at the position after the draft.
Now that longtime backup and special teams standout Tyler Matakevich has signed as a unrestricted free agent with the Buffalo Bills, the Steelers are left with talented second year player Ulysses Gilbert III and unknown journeyman Robert Spillane filling out the depth chart. The duo doesn't lack for talent mind you, but experience is at a minimum.
As a sixth round selection in last year's draft, Gilbert (also known as UG3) is a poor man's Devin Bush. Both players have exceptional speed and movement skills, but are slightly undersized for the position. Not so much girth as it is being vertically challenged. UG3 was a big play machine at Akron, particularly adapt at tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Scouts were enamoured by his superior coverage skills, which undoubtedly caught the Steelers attention. His rookie year was cut short by a back injury, but not before he flashed enormous potential in training camp and preseason action. The Steelers need UG3 to be a healthy and productive backup this season.
Robert Spillane is a football player, plain and simple. He is cut from the same cloth as the aforementioned Tyler Matakevich. Both players are hardnosed overachievers who love to smash ball carriers. Like Matakevich, Spillane has relied on his toughness and intestinal fortitude to excel in a game were he is often overmatched by more talented opposition.
Spillane signed with the Tennessee Titans as a undrafted free agent in 2018, after his collegiate career at Western Michigan. He had a memorable interception against the Steelers during that first preseason, leading to a spot on the Titans practice squad, and eventually a roster spot. That success was short lived, as Spillane was soon cut again, only to be signed to the Steelers practice squad a short time later. Spillane again played musical chairs with a roster spot for the Steelers all last season. Spillane can clearly see a roster spot open for him this year on the Steelers, and he has every intention of solidifying that position. Spillane has displayed solid special teams work; and unlike Matakevich, Spillane doesn't appear to be helpless in pass coverage, howbeit with limited exposure.
That makes up the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker at the moment. While they don't lack for talent, experience is in short supply. That doesn't mean the Steelers need to utilize their extremely limited draft capital to select another ILB prospect, especially in the early rounds. Adding more talented contributors is always desirable, but the main thing the Steelers depth chart is missing is the one thing a rookie couldn't provide, experience.
Former Clemson standout Tanner Muse, a LB/S hybrid, could provide great value and needed depth at two positions in the later rounds.
I wouldn't be surprised if the Steelers sign a veteran at the position after the draft, to a very team friendly deal. You never know, Mark Barron may still be available.