The heart of any NFL roster is filled out with late round draft picks, undrafted free agent finds, and under the radar free agency signings. These signings are far from flashy, but their impacts are definitely substantial. The most consistently successful franchises have a proven track record of finding, and developing, these hidden gems. This is yet another example of the underlying focus of my offseason articles thus far: hidden value.
The 2021 Steelers lacked established depth at many positions. Inevitable injuries and ineffectiveness magnified this truth. The Steelers misjudged both the talent and abilities of their backups at multiple positions. Interior linebacker was a glaring example of this undeniable issue.
The Steelers were blindsided by Vince Williams’ stunning retirement on the day that the players were scheduled to report for training camp. The Steelers knew their run stuffing buck linebacker was nearing the end of his career, and they were trying to prepare accordingly. Williams set the physical and emotional tone for the Steelers defense.
The Steelers believed Robert Spillane was a solid backup option for Williams. They also drafted Texas A&M LB Buddy Johnson in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Spillane can provide a similar physicality to Williams against the run, but also resembles him in pass coverage, sadly. Johnson is physically talented, but was no where near ready to see extended minutes to begin his rookie season.
Still staggering from Williams’ unexpected departure, the Steelers made a calculated attempt to rectify the situation by trading a sixth round draft pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for long-time Steelers nemesis Joe Schobert. Schobert was a 27-year old veteran with the reputation of being an accomplished interior linebacker, especially in pass coverage.
He seemed like a great fit for a 4-3, with the football IQ and overall skill set to succeed in a 3-4. On paper, he looked like a good match for the Steelers. Turns out he was anything but a good match. He formed an atrocious tandem with Devin Bush. Both players have the physicality and mentality of a mack linebacker. To make matters worse, neither gentleman played anywhere near their capabilities. Bush struggled to return to form after his ACL injury, and Schobert struggled in pass coverage more so than at any previous point of his career.
Now the Steelers front office personnel are debating whether or not to pick up Bush's fifth year option, and Schobert is expected to be released to free up valuable salary cap space. It only makes sense for both parties involved, and will allow Schobert to find a scheme where he can be more productive. I appreciate his contributions, because it was never a lack of effort. Simply a poor fit for the Steelers defense.
The Steelers presently have more questions than answers at the inside linebacker positions. Buddy Johnson is currently the only buck linebacker on the roster, and he basically has zero in-game experience. Therefore, the Steelers will need to focus on the position in free agency and the draft. I have already written an off season article focusing on possible draft target Wyoming ILB Chad Muma. This article will focus on a possible free agency target, due to possible connection with the Steelers’ new defensive assistant coach, Brian Flores.
The free agent inside linebacker I am referring to is Elandon Roberts. He has six years of NFL experience, after being drafted in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. He measured in at a shade under six feet tall at the NFL Scouting Combine, and weighs about 235 lbs. He won two Super Bowls during his four year stint with the Patriots from 2016 to 2019. His position coach with the Patriots from 2016 to 2018 was none other than Brian Flores. Roberts then signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins in 2020, who happened to be coached by the aforementioned Flores. Anyone else starting to notice a trend here?
Roberts lacks ideal length for the position, but he has proven to be an effective run stopper throughout his career. He has above average speed for the position, having posted a 4.6 40-yard dash time at the Combine. Although he is far less efficient in pass coverage, he is well-versed in Flores’ defensive schemes, which increases his projected value to the Steelers. This would be extremely valuable for what could potentially be an extremely young group of inside linebackers, all of whom will be required to learn a plethora of new play designs and verbiage.
Roberts’ experience in Flores’ defense shouldn't be overlooked, in my opinion. He could help accelerate the learning curve of his position group exponentially. Ideally, he wouldn't be asked to be a starter for the Steelers, more of a experienced depth signing. Roberts could lean on his previous experience with Flores to be ready and able whenever called upon.
Signing Roberts would in no way be flashy, but it's the type of hidden value move upon which rebuilding teams have to depend.