By the time the Steelers’ first selection on Day Three of the 2023 NFL Draft rolled around, the team had already added a tackle, cornerback, defensive lineman and tight end. With no depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, it was clear EDGE would be a priority — and it was indeed.
At Pick 132, Pittsburgh took Wisconsin’s Nick Herbig, the younger brother of recent free agent offensive guard signing Nate Herbig. The franchise had been connected to the youngest Herbig for much of the pre-draft process, which made the pick relatively easy to project.
Getting drafted by the Steelers was a poignant moment for Herbig, as he was able to join his brother in the Steel City. But, the Badger is more than just an extension of family, or yet another Madison product, inside the UPMC.
A consensus First Team All-Big Ten selection last season, Herbig was consistently disruptive each of the last two seasons. Per PFF, he earned a collective grade of 83.6 or higher in both 2021 and 2022. More specifically, his 11 sacks were first in the Big Ten by 3.5, while his 34 pressures were tied for 10th.
What traits does Herbig possess that drew the Steelers’ attention? What facets of his game need fine-tuning to reach the next level? Take a look below at the team’s newest OLB3.
What’s immediately noticeable about Herbig is a great get-off at the line of scrimmage. While edge rushers can still be victorious in reps with slower first steps, this explosion from the onset puts Herbig in ideal position to set up his pass-rushing move and gain leverage on tackles.
On top of that, Herbig pairs his early work with bend, plus burst when attacking the quarterback. He can almost act like a blur once he turns the corner and works his way inside the pocket.
This sack against Michigan State embodies all of those characteristics. Herbig gets off the ball hastily, paces around the left tackle, keeps his balance as he rounds the “hoop” and flies in to drop Payton Thorne. That flurry of moves is tough for any tackle to handle.
Here’s another instance of that bend and acceleration against MSU. While Herbig can’t finish the sack, he dips his shoulder to gain ground, using a bit of a ghost rush, before staying upright at a low angle to force Thorne to step up into traffic.
One more example for good measure. Rushing from the right side, Herbig flashes a chop before ripping underneath with his left hand. Eventually, Herbig wrestles free of the right tackle’s grip, which chases Tommy DeVito.
You may have noticed it in the prior clips already, but Herbig has a tremendous, relentless motor as an edge rusher. Herbig continues working to the quarterback after parries and even maintains hustle down the field — well after his initial attempt at a stop is over, even trying to jar the ball loose. That will certainly win over countless fans in an NFL locker room.
A unique element to the Steelers’ outside linebackers is dropping into coverage more than one would expect. That may actually work to Herbig’s benefit: he has a smooth dropback and backpedal with solid instincts. According to PFF, Herbig was in coverage in 95 snaps this year; for context, Highsmith was at 61. When assigned to a cloud flat or even the middle of the field, Herbig can leverage those traits and be a plus playmaker.
In conjunction with his abilities in rushing the passer, Herbig can stand out in his run defense. He consistently hits with a thud to make stops. Further, Herbig has demonstrated an ability to shed blocks; here, he engages with the Illinois lineman, swims away and stamps the Illini ballcarrier for a loss.
Herbig is capable of utilizing his first step vs. run plays, too. Lined up against a tight end, watch as he cuts between two reach blocks to disrupt the entire play.
Ultimately, Herbig can certainly set an edge in the run game in light of his physicality and reaction time.
While Herbig has a strong foundation in terms of assailing quarterbacks, new OLBs coach Denzel Martin will likely work with the Badger to stay a bit more controlled in the second half of his rushes.
On this rep against Dawand Jones, Herbig crosses the RT’s face with a swift swipe but then tries to work back inside and moves too far. Herbig may have been following Wisconsin’s assignment on this play, but it likely would have been better to continue working against Jones’ interior.
There were several other instances that emerged on tape where Herbig would put forth an impressive first move and then fail to sustain that throughout the rush. He’ll benefit from staying tighter around the corner of tackles and being a bit more controlled and methodical.
Additionally, if Herbig wants to become a more consistent force against the run, he’ll need to improve his ability to stack and shed against blocks, largely those of tight ends. Here are two cases where the OLB is just a few ticks late to separate himself, which prevents a positive defensive play.
Moreover, Herbig typically counters wham or pulling blocks by just lowering his shoulder into the offensive player. While this is conventionally following what’s taught, Herbig’s contact largely doesn’t seem to pack a ton of punch to actually deter plays.
Finally, Herbig could stand to become more square when making tackles. He missed 16.7% of tackles last year, which was tied for sixth-worst among Big Ten edge rushers to play 500+ snaps.
Several pundits felt that Herbig would have been taken higher if not for 31 ¼-inch arms, which are in the 18th percentile of linebackers, per Mockdraftable. Hence, some felt that he might be best situated transitioning to inside linebacker in the NFL.
However, the Steelers remain intent on keeping Herbig at OLB to start his career. That decision seems best to align with not only his success in Madison rushing the passer, but also his raw skills.
With a strong get-off, an pass-rushing repertoire and a motor that’s always running hot, Herbig has a sound floor as an edge rusher. While he’ll need to be a more effective block-shedder in the run game and harness his energy somewhat as a pass-rusher, he already has experience playing in a 3-4 system under Jim Leonhard at Wisconsin.
Herbig’s abilities should translate right away as a solid backup OLB in Pittsburgh, spelling Watt or Highsmith during rests. Overall, Herbig provides Mike Tomlin’s team with a decorated player from a top program with high upside who can provide flashes from the start.