Last season, the Steelers’ defense put together another solid campaign: on the shoulders of Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith and more, the group tied for 10th in points allowed per game and ranked 10th in Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA. Likewise, the team’s unit did not permit 20 points in a game in the final seven contests of 2022.
However, despite a relatively successful year, the team saw very minimal production from its inside linebacking group. Devin Bush, Myles Jack and Robert Spillane combined for zero interceptions, no fumbles or fumble recoveries, one sack and nine tackles for loss. Further, Bush was the highest-graded player of the three, posting a very pedestrian 58.8 PFF mark. It’s no wonder, then, that the Steelers let Bush and Spillane walk, plus cut Jack.
In an effort to overhaul its inside linebacker room, Pittsburgh signed free agents Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts, adding two likely, veteran starters. However, it remains unclear who will accompany the two outsiders in the middle of the Steelers’ defense. It could be second-year Mark Robinson, who played 37 snaps over the team’s final two games of last year, but the Ole Miss product looked (expectedly) raw.
Even with these acquisitions, the team’s ILB group inspires little confidence entering this year, let alone examining the future. However, all of that can change with just one pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
To put it bluntly, the Steelers have not had a quality ILB since at least Bush’s rookie year — 2019. In fact, that season witnessed the last Pittsburgh inside ‘backer to post a PFF grade above a 61 in the form of Vince Williams, who scored a 76.2.
While the organization drafted Buddy Johnson in the fourth round in 2021 and Robinson in the seventh round last year, the lack of a burgeoning, consistently reliable linebacker has continued to rear its ugly head.
In 2021, the Steelers traded for Joe Schobert, pairing him with Bush and Spillane. Schobert, like his former Jaguars teammate Jack, was cut only a season later after a mediocre year. Following Bush’s season-ending ACL tear in 2020, Pittsburgh traded for Avery Williamson, but the veteran was not as impactful as expected. In 2019’s free agency period, Kevin Colbert signed Mark Barron, who played 73% of snaps that season but was cut the next March after underwhelming.
The Indianapolis Colts have received countless flak for their use of a veteran carousel approach at quarterback, from Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan. In many cases, the Steelers have done the exact same at inside linebacker, turning to older stopgap options — players that not only did not yield results, but that also only perpetuated a deeper need at the position.
Turning focus to the upcoming draft itself, the last six years have witnessed at least two inside linebackers hear their names called in Round One. However, that is almost universally expected to change in 2023; in fact, it may be a surprise if even one ILB is nabbed in the first 31 picks.
While ILB remains a critical need for Pittsburgh, pulling the trigger on such a prospect at Pick 17 would not be the best use of resources or available star power. In part, that’s because of the treacherous history of first-round ILBs, which has far from translated into a surefire selection.
If no ‘backers are crossed off big boards by Pick 32, that likely will only help the Steelers in choosing among a better pool of talent, particularly at such a dire position. Further, while there is a bit of a stigma regarding first-round ILBs, consider names such as Nick Bolton, Logan Wilson, Germaine Pratt, Drue Tranquill and Baron Browning — all of whom were picked in the second round or later. While the position as a whole is rather volatile in nature, it appears less risky to notch a middle-of-the-field presence with a Day Two pick.
Regarding this year’s contingent in particular, there may not be a bonafide “superstar” at inside linebacker; at the same time, that doesn’t mean legitimate talent doesn’t exist.
Iowa’s Jack Campbell turned heads in Indianapolis by posting an otherworldly 9.98 Relative Athletic Score (RAS), and his tape reinforces his prowess. The Butkus Award winner’s outstanding acceleration, pursuit, sideline-to-sideline skill, stickiness in coverage and desire to finish plays make him an outstanding fit for what the Steelers need. Per Grinding the Mocks, Campbell is currently projected to be selected around Pick 44 — five before the Steelers’ second selection in Round Two — but taking him at 32 would not be a stretch.
In addition to Campbell, Arkansas’ Drew Sanders has drawn rather rave reviews. While Sanders only switched to off-ball linebacker in his final year with the Razorbacks, his ranginess, ability to disrupt plays, block-shedding and relentlessness all make him an appealing pick; his 9.28 RAS wasn’t too shabby, either. Sanders is prognosticated to be the first linebacker taken this year, and was even graded 12th on The Ringer’s Ben Solak’s big board, so Pick 32 could also be a fit if the Steelers are interested.
Beyond Campbell and Sanders, there are other solid late-round options, including Trenton Simpson (Clemson), Daiyan Henley (Washington State), Henry To’oTo’o (Alabama) and Noah Sewell (Oregon), to name a few. While not necessarily the 2021 ILB class featuring hot commodities in Micah Parsons, Zaven Collins, Jamin Davis, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Bolton, the 2023 crop should eventually yield multiple starters, and probably several impressive ones.
Yes, the Steelers could use the trio of Roberts, Holcomb and Robinson as their primary starters in the second level, plus potentially sign a veteran (e.g., Rashaan Evans, Deion Jones, Ben Burr-Kirven). However, Roberts hasn’t had a season with a PFF grade north of 60 since 2018, and Holcomb only came in at a 66.6 mark in 2022. Neither Roberts nor Holcomb is likely to be a long-term solution, either, given that each inked a contract worth no longer than three years.
When the Steelers traded up to draft Bush in 2019, they envisioned landing an athletic, superstar linebacker to fortify the middle of their defense for a decade or more. Instead, the organization has had to confront the reality that neither the selection nor the move to land Bush worked out.
Rather than continuing to put together a piecemeal group at inside linebacker — which still is quite vulnerable against the pass, a play that has come to dominate the modern NFL — it’s time to acquire a legitimate ILB to build around sans Bush. By possessing the first slot in the second round, plus potentially having the pick of the litter in terms of linebackers, Pittsburgh is in a unique position to not just vastly upgrade its inside linebacking situation, but to even make it a strength in the seasons to come.