Let's take a short trip down memory lane, if you will be so kind.
Back in early February, I wrote the first article in a two part series about how the Steelers could upgrade their inside linebacker positions. The initial article focused on the smorgasbord of talent about to become available in 2023 free agency.
As anyone familiar with my writing or podcasts already knows, I feel the inside linebacker performance for the Steelers has hit an all-time low in recent seasons, and has been an embarrassment compared to the hard earned standard set by their predecessors. Immediate changes were desperately needed, both in personnel and evaluation.
Thankfully, the Steelers decision makers agreed with my assessment, and they proceeded to do some much needed spring cleaning, which even included the position coach. The Steelers totally revamped their off ball linebacker depth chart, and will field two new starters at the position to start the 2023 NFL season.
The Steelers signed Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts in free agency. Neither gentlemen was on my preferred wish list from part one of this series, but that's because of my stated desire to see the Steelers pursue one of top available talents at the position, and I utilized the PFF rankings at the position to set my parameters. Holcomb and Roberts weren't ranked in the Top 7, therefore they flew under my radar. Well, almost.
It was quickly apparent that the Steelers weren't going to throw massive amounts of money at the well-documented problem. The first few days of free agency revealed the majority of my suggested wish list weren't within the Steelers’ scope, either because of cost or shared interest. I quickly changed course, and suggested former Chargers and current Chiefs inside linebacker Drue Tranquill as a possible fit. The Steelers were targeting a Tranquill type performer all along in Cole Holcomb, even if he hadn't yet pinged my radar.
Holcomb perfectly fits the rebuilding profile being consistently utilized by the Steelers recently: talented player between the ages of 24-28 who already possesses plenty of starting experience and was searching for his second professional contract. A proven performer capable of growing with the young surrounding roster over a 3-4 year window of time, all at an affordable price.
Then the Steelers signed Elandon Roberts, a player I actually suggested as a possibility last offseason, due to his substantial familiarity with Brian Flores’ defensive system. Flores leaves for a promotion in Minnesota after the season, and then Roberts signs with the Steelers. Life is just funny like that sometimes.
Roberts doesn't perfectly fit the Steelers profile, as he will be turning 29 next month and has had multiple contracts, but he definitely fills a huge need.
Both Holcomb and Roberts have starting experience, physicality, and leadership. Both have been team captains. Holcomb is an instant upgrade at Mack, where his 4.51 explosive mobility can be best utilized. Roberts is also a substantial upgrade at Buck, blessed with a nasty disposition to go along with 4.6 speed. Mark Robinson rounds out the depth chart, where his ceiling remains to be seen. Robinson is an explosive hitter with better than advertised athleticism, including 4.6 range speed. He appears better suited to Buck due to his coverage limitations, but his inexperience at off ball linebacker makes trying to project his long-term potential at either position extremely difficult.
Let me start the draft prospects portion of the article with this observation and admission. First, I am extremely pleased with the Steelers decisions thus far in free agency, especially those that impact the inside linebacker position. Well, all besides one, and that one has me scared to death, for two reasons.
The Steelers inability to retain Terrell Edmunds is extremely disappointing and confusing to yours truly. Edmunds absence will more than likely impact the Steelers approach to the inside linebacker position in the 2023 NFL Draft, just as much as the presence of Holcomb and Roberts. That is both a fascinating and frightening possibility. Let me try to explain in as few words as possible.
Edmunds was a box safety who played like a coverage linebacker with position flexibility. That flexibility was a huge component of what made the Steelers three safety looks so intriguing. Now the Steelers will most likely entered the 2023 season with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee as their starting safeties, and possibly look to fill Edmunds absence from the defensive equation by selecting a coverage capable off ball linebacker in the draft, therefore potentially missing out on the best inside linebacker prospect in this class.
Without further ado, here are some of my prospect evaluations after additional film study, based on my opinion of their abilities to fill the Steelers current needs.
At first glance, Campbell is an old school middle linebacker, cut from similar cloth as Steelers legend Jack Lambert. At 6'5" and nearly 250 lbs, Campbell is tall, thick, instinctive, and intimidating. Upon second glance, we see the former Iowa product is also more explosive and athletic than advertised, proven by his top of his class explosive measurables, plus his serviceable 4.65 forty. His game film was both impressive and enjoyable. Campbell was an unanimous first team All American, plus the Butkus Award winner in 2022. He is everything that a Buck linebacker should be, and is my favorite off ball linebacker in this class. Regrettably, I believe Mike Tomlin and company have other ideas.
Simpson embodies the modern day interior linebacker the league is looking for, possessing the superior mobility needed to excel in coverage. If I am correct, and the Steelers are looking to fill some of what was lost with Edmunds departure with a off ball linebacker selection, then Simpson could very well be at the top of their list. The former Clemson Tiger, at 6'2" and 235 lbs., has the size and skill profile of the modern day Mack. Simpson's 4.43 forty shows up on film, as he can easily turn and run with most receivers. This ability has resulted in numerous evaluators suggesting the possibility of a Carnell Lake like move to safety in the NFL, but not solely because of his elite level athleticism. Simpson lacks ideal instincts, and the physicality to disengage from blockers, similar to a recently departed predecessor. Based on those shortcomings alone, I cannot justify selecting him in the first round, but the Steelers may have other ideas.
It feels like I have been writing about Sewell for over a year now. He was definitely on my radar heading into the 2022 season, when I considered Robert Spillane the only true Buck on the Steelers roster. Now that the Steelers have signed Roberts, and because of the versatility of Holcomb and Robinson, I don't feel the urgent need to add another Buck LB. If the Steelers miss the opportunity to draft Campbell, or choose to go another direction in the early rounds, then Sewell could still be a possibility in as late as the fourth round. Sewell is another hard-nosed baller who would have been in high demand before the turn of the century, but now runs the risk of becoming a two down specialist. Sewell ran a 4.64 forty at the Combine, which was actually faster than I was expecting for the 246 lbs. former Oregon Duck. Sewell would be an excellent value in the fourth round or later, and won't turn 21 until next month.
Honestly, I am more intrigued by the idea of Sanders than the actual product on the field. Sanders was an Alabama edge player who transferred to Arkansas and became an off ball linebacker. At 6'5" and 233 lbs., with 4.54 speed, Sanders possesses an intriguing combination of size and speed. He has everything you look for in a versatile interior linebacker, besides experience. Sanders film was about what you would expect from an extremely talented but raw prospect; lots of flash, with the occasional crash mixed in. Patience will be crucial for which ever franchise pulls the early round trigger for the young standout. That is usually in short supply for any projected first round selection.
Henley fits the profile for what a modern day coverage linebacker looks like. At 6'1" and 225 lbs., he lacks ideal size, and is limited to the Mack position. Henley has 4.54 speed and solid explosive metrics, to go along with a consistent motor. His above average speed and mobility suggest the potential to be a subpackage coverage specialist at some point in his NFL developmental future. If the Steelers brass agrees with that evaluation, then the former Washington State Cougar could be a third round target.
My final evaluation is the biggest sleeper in this class, and might be just what the Steelers need to effectively lessen the impact of Edmunds abscence. Williams compares favorably with the aforementioned Henley, both in size and athletic ability, although Williams 4.49 forty was slightly faster. Like Henley, Williams is strictly a Mack LB who needs time to fully develop his coverage abilities at the NFL level. Williams is also an accomplished special teams performer, and highly respected around the Tulane program. For whatever reason, Williams reminded me of Terrell Edmunds while watching his game film. Williams is currently projected around the sixth round, which would be excellent value for an immediate special teams standout with the athleticism to potentially be a NFL starter somewhere in his future. Low risk/high reward type of selection.