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Steelers signing Cole Holcomb is a reminder how hard is it to replace a talent like Ryan Shazier

Cole Holcomb, a free-agent inside linebacker who the Steelers signed to a three-year deal on Wednesday, is the latest in a long line of attempts to replace the greatness that was Ryan Shazier.

Green Bay Packers v Washington Commanders Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Steelers signed Cole Holcomb to a three-year contract on Wednesday.

Holcomb, 26, is an inside linebacker and a former fifth-round pick who spent his first four seasons with the Washington Commanders.

The consensus on Holcomb is that he’s a tackling machine (388 career tackles) who is a bit of a liability in pass coverage.

If that description seems familiar to you, it’s probably because it sounds a lot like Jon Bostic, a free-agent inside linebacker who the Steelers signed in 2018. I can’t really speak to the tackling machine stuff when talking about Bostic, but I do know he was a liability in pass coverage when paired up against a Chargers receiver late in the 2018 campaign.

Unfortunately, Bostic was a lot closer to Vince Williams than what the Steelers needed him to be—a replacement for Ryan Shazier—and only lasted a year in Pittsburgh before being replaced (theoretically) by Mark Barron, an inside linebacker formerly of the Los Angeles Rams. I can’t remember if Barron was all that good at tackling, but he was a converted safety, which meant that he was supposed to be pretty darn effective in pass coverage.

Like Bostic, Barron only lasted one season in Pittsburgh, but that’s okay because 2019 was also the year that the Steelers went all in and traded up to the 10th spot to select Devin Bush in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Bush was supposed to possess the all-around abilities that an inside linebacker the quality of Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal injury late in the 2017 season, so often displayed. Bush was expected to be a force from sideline to sideline and be the kind of player you could devise a defensive game plan around.

Bush looked to be progressing quite nicely, that is until he suffered a season-ending ACL injury midway through the 2020 campaign. No worries, Robert Spillane, an undrafted free agent, did a decent enough job filling in for Bush and seemed to be more athletic than originally thought.

Williams retired right before the Steelers 2021 training camp kicked off, but fear not, with a returning Bush, a more seasoned Spillane and, oh yes, Joe Schobert, a veteran inside linebacker who came to Pittsburgh in a trade with the Jaguars that August, the arrow for the position seemed to be pointing up.

Schobert reportedly had the ability to cover and tackle. He was a leader and would be more than capable of possessing the green dot—something that’s very important for an inside linebacker.

Everyone was so impressed with his acquisition of Schobert, a fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin in the 2016 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert, the team’s legendary GM, was nicknamed The General Manager (it was a take on The Godfather—you really had to see the t-shirts for it all to make sense).

Sadly, Schobert didn’t live up to the hype. Meanwhile, Bush, who spent the summer of 2021 peeving everyone off with his social media activity, made fans even madder with his professional football activity during the fall and winter. As for Spillane? He was about as average as guys like him tend to be when given enough time to be average.

Schobert only lasted one season in Pittsburgh before being released last March.

Speaking of last March, that was when Myles Jack, a second-round pick by the Jaguars in the 2016 NFL Draft, was signed by the Steelers as sort of an insurance policy in case Bush never lived up to his potential.

Bush continued to not live up to his potential in 2022. As for Jack? He was pretty steady, but he certainly wasn’t the difference-making player he had been as a member of the Jaguars' stout defense.

Jack is still with the Steelers (as of this writing) and will now be paired with Holcomb at inside linebacker.

Who is Shazier in this duo? Who is Vince Williams? Who’s lightning and who’s thunder?

Shazier had the talent to be both lightning and thunder. He had the ability to take over a game, as evidenced by being the best player on the field in the Steelers' wild victory over the Bengals in the 2015 wildcard game at Paul Brown Stadium in January of 2016.

Sadly, Shazier was just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential when he was struck down by that horrific spinal injury in December of 2017.

Shazier could have been an all-time Steeler, someone who your children and grandchildren would have been talking about decades from now.

But Shazier never reached that level of greatness.

Yet, despite all of that, Pittsburgh hasn’t even come close to replacing him. The Steelers haven’t found Shazier’s replacement in free agency. They haven’t done so through trades. They haven’t been able to do so with guys who used to play safety. They haven’t been able to do so with safeties they thought could play dime linebacker.

And they couldn’t even do it with a guy they traded up into the top 10 to draft.

Will Holcomb finally turn out to be that guy? Will the Steelers use a premium pick in the upcoming draft to try and fill the huge void Shazier, a first-round pick in 2014, left behind?

That all remains to be seen, but if the Steelers are still searching for the next Ryan Shazier next spring, it certainly wouldn’t shock me.

In fact, the player that they sign will probably be a liability in pass coverage. Either that, or he’ll be a suspect tackler.

Players with Ryan Shazier’s talents don’t really grow on trees, and they usually aren’t readily available, either in trades or in free agency.

I guess that’s why the Steelers are still trying to find the next Ryan Shazier.