The man's poster still hangs on my childhood bedroom wall. One of many, actually. A living testimony to honor the man most responsible for my loyalty and love for the middle linebacker position. The images captured on my wall are of Steelers legend Jack Lambert, still the most intense and intimidating inside linebacker I have ever seen.
Please excuse me for saying middle linebacker, but that was the terminology of my childhood. That term perfectly described Lambert in my young mind, slobbering and stomping in the middle of the Steelers legendary Steel Curtain defense. If you are not quite sure what I am referring to with those descriptive adjectives, then you aren't old enough to have seen him play. I can still envision him swooping in for the perfect form tackle with the incredible wingspan of a great bird of prey, engulfing his victim, I mean ball carrier.
Once again I must beg humble pardons, because this trip down memory lane has actually left me a bit verklempt. Truthfully, I don't think it was the wonderful memories of my favorite Steelers defender of my youth that has me feeling a little melancholy. More likely it was being reminded of the current state of affairs at the position for the Steelers.
The Steelers franchise is renowned for their linebackers, both the inside and outside variety. Words like physical, aggressive, and intimidating immediately come to mind. The legends are too numerous to mention, but the standard for the position was carved in stone decades ago, and the man holding the hammer and chisel was better known as Jack Splat. Sadly, it's been awhile since anybody came close to meeting that standard.
Even in the past decade; the Timmons, Shazier, and Williams have given way to the Bush, Schobert, and Williamson atrocities that we have been subjected to over the time frame. No comparison needed, because there are none.
The standard has fallen, and is no more, as we have witnessed over the past two seasons. The Steelers must make every effort to return to the standard achieved over the decades, immediately.
There are a few free agent options I believe would embrace and honor the standard set and upheld by previous Steelers greats.
I utilized PFF’s Top 7 Free Agent inside linebacker rankings as part of this process.
An interesting observation obtained from my research was the revelation that five of the seven listed are 26 years old. That seems to be the median age for these standouts looking for their second, and most substantial, professional contract. Does that suggest that 26 is the age where a professional football player is just entering their prime? That's a discussion for another day.
Lavonte David is the oldest, and most accomplished, player listed. He is 33 years old, a multiple Pro Bowl and All-Pro recipient, and a Super Bowl champion. He is the epitome of the modern inside linebacker, and one of the decade’s best. While it appears he has a couple of elite years left, and plenty of knowledge to share with the Steelers youngsters, he is definitely no spring chicken, and would be a costly one at that. Therefore, I see him as a better fit on a contender, rather than the rebuilding Steelers.
The second highest rated free agent is David Long Jr. I am very familiar with Long, having watched him perform for my West Virginia Mountaineers. I wrote a pre-draft article suggesting the Steelers select him in the fourth or fifth round if the opportunity presented itself. Long actually lasted till the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, where he was taken by the Tennessee Titans.
It has taken Long a few seasons to establish himself, but he has shown steady improvement throughout, culminating with his emergence in 2022. I was actually shocked when I saw him at No. 2 on the list, but it actually makes sense, seeing how he is a young ascending player. Long shares plenty of similarities with Steelers rookie Mark Robinson. Ultra physical, aggressive, and intense player. Loves contact, almost too much at times, leading to some penalties. Long's experience learning the nuances of the professional game would be invaluable for the talented Robinson, who faces the same learning curve. Long is a real possibility.
The next player on the list that I would target is a true unicorn, Tremaine Edmunds. Terrell's little brother was No. 4 on the list, is still only 24 years old, and is an athletic freak. Blessed with exceptional size and length to go along with elite athleticism, it's hard for me to imagine Edmunds not being the top target for inside linebacker needy teams, driving his cost out of any realistic range for the Steelers. He would have to accept a truly team friendly deal to make magic happen, and I can't see that happening unless the Steelers retain Terrell. It costs nothing to dream, so dream away.
The No. 5 player on PFF's list was none other than Germaine Pratt. I have coveted a player with Pratt's abilities ever since he was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Pratt is everything I look for in a Buck linebacker. Excellent size, strength, speed ratio; plus a nasty disposition to go along with all that talent. He's mean as a garter snake. He's a bad, bad man. When Pratt hits the ball carrier, their forward momentum stops instantly. They definitely know they got stuck. He is an oddity in that he is a punishing enforcer who actually is above average in pass coverage. Not sure what it would cost to sign him; as he definitely doesn't like the Steelers very much, but the Steelers should definitely go fishing to see if there is a nibble.
Lastly, Leighton Vander Esch was ranked the No. 7 best free agent ILB on the list. He was one of my not-so-secret draft crushes back in 2018. I wanted the Steelers to trade up to take him, but they couldn't find any takers, and the Dallas Cowboys selected him in the first round. Vander Esch is tall and imposing, similar to the aforementioned Jack Lambert. He moves well for his size, and has improved his pass coverage to above average, a common trait of all the linebackers on the list. But make no mistake about it, Vander Esch specializes in knocking heads and tackling ball carriers. His height lends itself to an extra long neck, and he has missed some time with neck and back issues early in his career. Not surprising when you consider his length and physicality. I could almost envision him in the black and gold way back when, and you know what, I still do.
This is Part 1 of a 2 part series addressing how the Steelers can best upgrade their inside linebackers position. Part 2 will cover the draft prospects.
Regardless of how or where the upgrade happens, it has to happen. Too many decades of blood, sweat, and tears have been shed to set that standard to ever let it fade away.