I’ve heard it over and over again for many Steelers fans who believe they should take a “shiny new” running back or wide receiver with their top pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Even former Steelers’ great Rod Woodson chimed in on the subject this week saying Ben Roethlisberger needs weapons for the offense. While the argument is understandable, taking a glimpse at the Steelers roster shows they at least have a greater number of players on the offense than they do on defense. Yes, the Steelers defense has become elite and is pretty set with the starting lineup. But the Steelers lost a number of role players from 2019 which have not yet been replaced. When looking at a rookie selected on the second day of the NFL draft, stepping into an immediate “role player” spot until they advance throughout the season or future years is a desirable situation.
There are a number of reasons why the Steelers would not be faulted for taking one of the linebacking positions on day two of the NFL draft. Of course, with the Steelers not having a day one pick, both of their selections on day two will be considered “early.” There are actually three main reasons for both positions I will outline before getting into each position individually.
The Steelers still don’t have enough players on their current roster to fill the positions they kept in 2019
Last season, the Steelers kept five players at each line backing position at various points throughout the season. At inside linebacker, they pretty much held steady with five. For outside linebacker, the began with five and dropped to four only to come back to five again. Usually, the Steelers keep nine linebackers between the two positions. Right now, the Steelers only have four players at each position on the roster. Although there is a former XFL player on the roster who could be used in each of these positions, they are currently listed as a defensive end and a long snapper.
The Steelers lost a key role player at each position they have not yet replaced
As the Steelers moved on from a number of players after the 2019 off-season, they also added players through trades and free agency. For both linebacker positions, the Steelers have yet to add a player to replace either Anthony Chickillo or Mark Barron. The only other notable position the Steelers lost and did not fully replace (I’m not including Artie Burns, Sean Davis, or even Tyler Matakevich), is the fact they lost two interior offensive linemen and have only replaced them with one for the time being.
While some feel that Olasunkanmi Adeniyi or Tuzar Skipper could fill the role of Anthony Chickillo, the question would be why didn’t they last season? Chickillo still played ahead of both of them, so if the Steelers truly believe they are an upgrade, why didn’t they play ahead of him last season? The same can be said for Mark Barron and the reserves Ulysees Gilbert III and Robert Spillane. Of course, Gilbert was injured partway through the season so he did not have as much of an opportunity to take the snaps.
The other options at the position currently lack both experience and pedigree
Every player in both linebacker positions on the Steelers current roster was with the team in 2019. Of the four players, Ulysees Gilbert III was the only one who was drafted by the Steelers albeit in the sixth round. The other three players are all undrafted free agents. So while the there is familiarity by the Steelers, the players lack a draft pedigree which can help instill confidence for them to step in when needed.
When it comes to playing time, Ola Adeniyi has only played a total of 71 defensive snaps over two years. As for Tuzar Skipper, he played 40 defensive snaps with the Giants last season but none with the Steelers. The inside linebackers are even more concerning as Gilbert did not see a defensive snap yet in his career and Robert Spillane has played a grand total for one in his career.
So how important is it to have a player at either one of these positions? To answer this question, we will break them down individually.
The biggest challenge for the Steelers at the outside linebacker position is going to be filling the snaps played by Anthony Chickillo. In 2019, Chickillo played 143 snaps at the backup linebacker position, but he missed 5 games, so the other snaps were filled by Adeniyi with 62 and 22 by Jayrone Elliott. In all, the reserve outside linebackers played 227 snaps in 2019. In 2018, Chickillo played 295 snaps as the reserve outside linebacker, none of which came as a result of him starting a game. So the snaps weren’t even covering for a player who missed a game due to injury. The need to have a player at outside linebacker to take significant snaps for the season is not an issue when it comes to drafting a player early on the 2020 draft. If the player comes in as an upgrade over the others reserves the Steelers have on their roster, they would be filling a very important role.
When it comes to inside linebacker, the playing time there may be more than any other position. In 2019, Devin Bush played the most snaps at the position with 889 followed by Mark Barron with 750. Vince Williams only played 386 snaps at linebacker in 2019, but he looks to take on a high number of the snaps vacated by Barron. And don’t forget about the 16 stops played by Tyler Matakevich.
Either way, both players taking 100% of the snaps is not a wise decision, especially when it comes to subpackage football. While Gilbert looks to be a good prospect for the Steelers and could possibly take on the role, it’s still is not with certainty. With the narrative that James Conner can’t be trusted because he only played 10 games last season because of injury, how can it not be the same when looking at Gilbert who was only able to play in seven games? If the Steelers are going to address the inside linebacker position, doing it early with a high pedigree player would be of the most benefit.
Could some of the same arguments be made if the Steelers were to draft a wide receiver or running back with one of their early picks? Absolutely. The biggest difference is the Steelers would be filling an open spot with either linebacker position where they would be upgrading at these other positions at the expense of a roster spot currently occupied by someone else. When it comes to the 2020 roster, linebacker is truly a position where there are spots to be had on the roster in which the Steelers do not currently have enough players. And if the Steelers are looking to have a player to upgrade the ones that left, taking them early in the draft would be the more likely scenario. If not, they will still need to be addressed in free agency.