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Vince Williams’ sudden retirement is a reminder no team can ever really count on depth

Who will the Steelers use as quality depth at inside linebacker now that Vince Williams has suddenly retired? It’s impossible to know. That’s the thing about depth in the NFL. Everyone wants insurance, but it often doesn’t pay off even when you think you have good coverage.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After the signing of veteran outside linebacker Melvin Ingram last week, don’t you just feel great about the Steelers’ depth at that position? Isn’t it nice to have a little insurance? Or as comedian Chris Rock once said about medical insurance, “They should call it in case bleep.”

That’s right, in case bleep happens to T.J. Watt or Alex Highsmith, it’s comforting to know Pittsburgh will have some reliable coverage at the position.

Maybe. You know how it is with insurance. Sometimes big insurance companies (medical, dental, auto, etc.) don’t want to provide the coverage they promised. I once had to wait months to get my 2001 Mitsubishi Mirage fixed after someone rear-ended me on Greentree Road way back in 2006. The person responsible ultimately denied any wrongdoing, and her insurance company believed her at first. It took a while, but I eventually got my car fixed for nothing.

But it was close.

Maybe Ingram will cover the cost of losing a Watt or Highsmith, but there also might be loopholes in the form of age or maybe even an injury to the guy Pittsburgh brought in to provide adequate coverage in case of injury.

You just never know.

That’s the thing about depth in the NFL. Everyone wants good, reliable coverage, but even a quality backup is still a backup. More often than not, there’s a reason why someone isn’t sitting at the top of the depth chart.

That brings me to the sudden retirement of inside linebacker Vince Williams at the onset of training camp. When Pittsburgh released the long-time veteran early in free agency as a means to save money under the salary cap, there was concern about depth at the position. Who would back up Devin Bush? Who would back up Robert Spillane? After suffering a torn ACL last October, would Bush be 100 percent healthy by the start of the season? Would Spillane, who filled in admirably in Bush’s absence during the second half of the 2020 campaign, be up to the task as a full-time starter in 2021?

The Steelers really needed some insurance at the position. What veteran would they sign? Turned out, that veteran was Williams, who re-signed with the team in April at a reduced rate.

The Steelers had insurance at the inside linebacker spot. In case bleep happened—an injury, a regression in Spillane’s play, etc.—Vinny Vidivici would be there to cover the cost.

But now he’s gone. Who will provide quality depth at inside linebacker in 2021 in case bleep happens? Will it be Marcus Allen, the converted safety? Will Ulysses Gilbert III finally make a leap forward in his third season? How about Buddy Johnson, the rookie fourth-round pick from Texas A&M? We probably won’t truly know the who or how well the who will do until that person is thrust into action.

Again, you just never know with depth, and for as much as people have criticized the Steelers for a lack of quality backups at several positions, aren’t most teams pretty much in the same boat each and every year? I mean, is there any team that’s drowning in awesome depth at every position like some SEC juggernaut?

To answer my own questions: yes, and probably not.

I realize folks were holding out hope that Pittsburgh would sign Malik Hooker to provide quality depth at safety. I know some are disappointed that Jesse James is finally off the free-agent market and won’t be coming back to his old employer to act as the best number three tight end in the history of the universe.

But that’s life in the NFL. The Steelers will probably head into 2021 with unproven depth at safety. As for tight end? It looks like they’ll at least have two decent ones if the early reports coming out of camp about rookie Pat Freiermuth are any indication. Not many teams can even say that, right?

What happens if Ben Roethlisberger goes down? A decline in quarterback play seems likely. What will be the consequences if something happens to Bush again? The Steelers will likely be slower at inside linebacker.

You can never truly be set at any position. Remember on Saturday when reports surfaced that the Steelers were down to zero centers by the end of that day’s practice session thanks to an excused absence and two minor injuries?

A rash of injuries at one position has been known to happen over the course of a single game, let alone a season.

Even if it’s just one injury, there’s no guarantee that the dependable veteran backup or rookie hopeful will actually cover the cost of a damaged starter.

It’s hard enough to get 22 dependable starters in the salary cap era. When it comes to reliable backups? Good luck.