I think it was a little ironic that Vince Williams, who was released by the Steelers on Tuesday, had his career in Pittsburgh end during an offseason in which the organization is probably facing its most dire financial situation since the 2013 sixth-round pick out of Florida State became a professional.
If you don’t remember the 2013 offseason, it wasn’t pretty for the Steelers, who were finally forced to pay off their huge credit card debt that was mostly the result of a glorious Super Bowl run that had just ended a few years earlier.
In other words, the Steelers were in salary cap hell; their offseason moves and, ultimately, their final 53-man roster heading into the regular season reflected that.
In terms of starters and depth, the Steelers had little room for error, which became painfully clear in a Week 1 loss to the Titans at Heinz Field, a game that saw several key starters suffer season-ending injuries.
One such starter was veteran inside linebacker, Larry Foote. In terms of depth at the position, Pittsburgh had nothing that even approached the quality variety.
As it turned out, the lack of depth was more the perception and not the reality. Williams was thrust to the top of the depth chart and started 11 games during his rookie season; while he clearly had his ups and downs over the course of that 2013 season, the experience that Williams gained was invaluable.
The following year, Ryan Shazier was Pittsburgh’s first-round pick. Shazier proved to be pretty special right away and was made the center-piece of a Steelers’ defense in transition. Playing beside Shazier at inside linebacker was Lawrence Timmons, a former number-one pick who may not have been the athlete Shazier was, but he was still pretty darn good heading into his eighth season.
This meant that Williams had to bide his time as a backup and special teams ace over the next few seasons.
But Williams never stopped working; he never stopped trying to prove that he was worthy of a starting role. There would be the occasional flash during the preseason when he would show Steelers fans what kind of thumper he was. Even better, there was that stretch early in the 2016 regular season when Williams spent a few weeks filling in for an injured Shazier and was so productive, there were calls for him to remain at the top of the depth chart.
Williams finally got his chance to be a full-time starter in 2017 thanks to Timmons's free-agent departure. In 16 games that year, Williams recorded 89 tackles and an amazing eight quarterback sacks.
By this point, Williams, whose original signing bonus was a measly $78,000, was earning the kind of money befitting a starter and team leader.
That’s right, not only did Williams become a full-time starter, he became one of the leaders of the Steelers defense.
Don’t get me wrong, Williams always had to deal with the stigma that often comes with being a sixth-round pick—they don’t all get to be Tom Brady and Antonio Brown—and it often felt like Williams was one free-agent signing or draft choice away from being replaced. In fact, not only did the Steelers sign Mark Barron two offseasons ago, they traded up in the first round and selected Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Both moves were seen as a response to the career-ending spinal injury suffered by Shazier in 2017. The Steelers needed to find a player who could replace Shazier’s speed and athleticism in the middle of the defense, and they went out and got two in a matter of months.
That meant less playing time for Williams in 2019—at least as a starter. But Williams kept fighting and trying to prove himself. After Barron was sent packing last offseason, Williams was back as a starter and was pretty darn effective in his old role as the run-stuffing thumper next to the more dynamic Bush—a role Williams once played quite well alongside his close teammate, Shazier.
Unfortunately, Bush had his 2020 season cut short due to a torn ACL; for Williams, the real irony came in the form of Robert Spillane, who, like Williams in 2013, was thrust into the role of starter much sooner than he probably ever expected. Spillane started seven games at inside linebacker in place of Bush in 2020, and the former undrafted free agent showed enough potential that it seemed possible he could replace the much more expensive Williams in 2021.
It now looks like that possibility will become a reality.
As for Williams, he has nothing to be ashamed of. Like I said earlier, not every sixth-round pick gets to be Brady or Brown. In fact, most don’t even go on to have lengthy NFL careers.
Williams had that with the Steelers. He’ll obviously never make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame or even the Steelers Hall of Honor, but Vince Williams did his part in continuing the team’s rich tradition at the linebacker position.
Best of luck and thanks for the memories, VinnyVidiVici.