Thunder and lightning. Steak and potatoes. Winter and football. The Pittsburgh Steelers and linebackers. These pairs are as old as the hills, and they are so fundamentally united that it is impossible to think of one without the other. Like hard work and sweat, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the position of linebacker are cemented as one of the strongest associations in the world. Decades of excellence at this position has created a lasting culture of hard-hitting, gritty, and downright dominant football that transcends the names on the back of the black and gold jerseys.
This upcoming season, the Steelers will whittle down their roster to reach league standards, and in doing so, they will have to trim down a crowded group of fourteen linebackers, many of whom have made significant contributions to the organization both on and off the field. Depth on the outside and lack thereof on the inside will present significant challenges to the front office, who will have some very tough decisions to make. So who will make the roster?
Let me preface by saying the team will most likely keep eleven linebackers. Last year the team went with eleven linebackers, six of which were on the inside. Due to depth on the outside and lack thereof on the inside, I believe the team will keep just five ILBs to make room for them to keep and develop six OLBs. While the team historically keeps six ILBs (this is a physically demanding position that needs depth of fresh bodies) on virtue of skill and production, there are only three or four spots that should be available. That being said, depth is important, so I think the team will opt with five.
ILB1: Ryan Shazier
I mentioned thunder and lightning earlier- this Ohio State product is as menacing as the former and as quick as the latter. Shazier is finally coming into his own in the league and delivering crushing hits all over the field. In a 2016 campaign that earned him his first Pro Bowl honors, Shazier racked up 87 tackles, 3 forced fumbles (he recovered one), and 3 interceptions. In short, Shazier was everywhere in 2016. On run defense, he had several very memorable tackles for losses (11 to be exact). In the pass rush, he was a menace, getting to the quarterback for 7 QB hits and 3.5 sacks. In coverage, he tallied 9 passes defended. Shazier is an exceptional young player who is still trending upward, and he is a lock to make the 53-man roster.
ILB2: Vince Williams
In the time that he’s not running the NFL’s most captivating Twitter account (@VinnyVidiVici98, you’ll thank me later) Vince Williams works part time as a tackling machine. Despite playing on only 25.62% of defensive snaps, Williams placed seventh on the team in tackles with 47, just behind James Harrison. Over his four-year career, Williams has quietly amassed 190 tackles, just under 50 per season. In 2016 he was adept at snuffing out run plays and getting to the quarterback, to the tune of 2.0 sacks and 4.0 tackles for losses. His play applied consistent pressure on starter Lawrence Timmons, who left this offseason to sign with the Miami Dolphins, so it’s safe to say Williams will be ready to step into his role as a starter. The only question with Williams is whether starting will affect his status with special teams, where he has thrived for years. Consider Williams a lock.
ILB3: Tyler Matakevich
The reign of Dirty Red begins. After Vince Williams, the dropoff at ILB is an area of concern for Pittsburgh, but if this 2016 7th-rounder develops into what the coaching staff believes he can be, this concern lessens significantly. Matakevich was an outstanding player at Temple, reaching nearly 500 tackles in his 4 year career. In Pittsburgh, he cracked the rotation late in the regular season and postseason, totalling 21 tackles as he found his way in Keith Butler’s defense. Matakevich is not an imposing athlete, but he has a high motor and a nose for the ball. His athletic limitations leave a lot to be desired in terms of coverage, which may hurt his chances of getting big-time minutes. However, the coaching staff is very high on him; when Shazier rests, Matakevich takes first-team snaps. Another advantage Matakevich possesses is his prowess on special teams; he led all Steelers special teamers in tackles. With that in mind, at a very thin ILB position group, Matakevich should make the team with relative ease.
ILB4: L.J. Fort
After Matakevich, nothing is certain. Johnson and L.J. Fort were the last two inside linebackers on the depth chart in 2016, so I would expect them to be in the running for the active roster once again. The differentiation between the two on the field is minute, but I’d give a slight edge to Fort based on snap totals. Fort saw the field for more defensive snaps (Johnson saw none) and nearly double the special teams snaps. While Johnson was more productive (small sample size, but he did gain more tackles and force a fumble) than Fort, snap counts are usually indicative of the coaching staff’s evaluation of a player.
ILB5: Free agent
This last spot could be occupied by Steven Johnson if they choose not to go the route of free agency, but I believe Pittsburgh should wait until the cuts following the preseason to find a quality inside linebacker that slips through the cracks with a deeper team. This is a position of need for Pittsburgh, and it needs to be addressed. There is always the looming risk of Shazier missing games with nagging injuries, and in the event that does happen, (even with Vince Williams at the helm) it would be concerning for Butler to have to give significant minutes to Matakevich, Fort or Johnson. It is too much of a gamble not to secure this position, and I expect the team will address it accordingly.
OLB1: James Harrison
The man, the myth, the legend. The timeless veteran. The workout warrior. The most feared man in football. James Harrison, AKA Deebo. At 39, Harrison is one of the NFL’s oldest players, but thanks to tireless offseason conditioning, Harrison continues to be a stalwart of the Steelers defense. In addition to his outstanding career longevity, Harrison continues to produce on the field, lead the team, and mold the younger players after his fierce work ethic. I listed him first because he’s a lock, but I believe he will be second or third in OLB snap totals.
OLB2: Bud Dupree
To say that Dupree finally broke onto the scene in 2016 seems like an odd statement to make, as Dupree only played in seven games due to injury. However, in the seven games he played, Dupree was a force to be reckoned with. Amassing 4.5 sacks and 2 additional tackles for losses, Dupree brought significant results rushing the passer and stopping the run. Rolling into Week 11 on a four-game losing streak, with the Steelers in danger of losing another season to mediocrity, Dupree stepped in and was a difference-maker right off the bat. The team rattled off nine straight wins en route to an AFC North title and an AFC Championship appearance. Dupree is going to help this team win a lot of games next year. Lock.
OLB3: T.J. Watt
While it isn’t the worst thing in the world to be compared to one of football’s greatest active players, I’m willing to bet this guy probably wants us to stop comparing him to his brother. Thankfully, it looks like Watt will let his game do all the talking. Besides jumping off the charts in pretty much every measurable desired in a linebacker, Watt is also learning his new system very quickly. With high praises from Joey Porter and the other defensive coaching staff, Watt seems poised to cut into James Harrison’s minutes and grant the veteran some rest. It will be exciting to watch Watt’s development this year.
OLB4: Anthony Chickillo
Chickillo was on the field for 30.21% of defensive snaps and 62.47% of special teams snaps, and he was a steady producer. After cutting down in size and switching from defensive end to outside linebacker, Chickillo was a solid contributor in the pass rush with 2.5 sacks. He racked up 29 tackles and 2 forced fumbles, one of which came against Dak Prescott and the formidable Dallas offensive line. It’s been slow and steady for Chickillo his first few years, but he’s forming into a solid young player who delivers when called upon and contributes on special teams.
OLB5: Arthur Moats
Moats is Pittsburgh’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee and resident nice guy, but he has a mean streak on the field. While he only tallied 21 tackles in 2016, he terrorized quarterbacks to the tune of 3.5 sacks. Moats’ value as a pass-rusher, however, does not measure up to his value as a team leader, a mentor, and a member of his community. Earlier this year, Moats earned a master’s degree in Community and Economic Development, and it’s safe to say he is putting it to good use. He is all over the map at charitable events, and he donates a significant portion of his salary to various educational avenues, such as his former high school and college. Moats’ age and lack of tackling production could make him a surprise cut, but my gut tells me Pittsburgh will keep him around.
OLB6: Keion Adams
A seventh-rounder in the 2016 draft, Adams has a lot to prove. Thankfully, he has all the tools to do so. Adams is a speedy edge rusher with quick feet and solid closeout tackling. Interestingly enough, while his NFL pre-draft evaluations compared him to Arthur Moats, he measures almost identically to the pre-draft numbers of his current position coach, Joey Porter. If Adams can capitalize on his measurables and prove himself at camp (word is he has been solid thus far,) I believe the team will invest in him and try to get him some experience. In a crowded group, it would make sense if he were stashed on the practice squad, but after watching Travis Feeney get snagged by New Orleans off of the PS last year, I would be willing to bet the front office will be reluctant to put another solid developmental pick there again. At this point in the offseason, it’s a toss-up as to whether or not he’ll make it, but I like his upside and think the front office does too.
Names to watch:
Likely the odd man out at ILB, Johnson showed flashes on special teams, recording six tackles and forcing a fumble. I think he has a pretty decent chance at making the roster at a thin position if a free agent isn’t brought in.
An undrafted free agent signed to the 90-man roster, Kelsey was extremely productive at Louisville. He is an extremely aggressive, downhill player who excelled at tackling in college, however, he lacks the speed to be an effective tackler at the next level. Besides Shazier, the ILB position’s number one shortcoming is its lack of speed, which is a glaring issue in the pass-happy NFL. Adding a relatively slow player such as Kelsey doesn’t exactly address the speed issue or provide depth that isn’t comparable to other more experienced players. Unless he shows immense special teams upside or improves his speed, I don’t expect him to make the roster.
A University of Pittsburgh product and a Pennsylvania native, Galambos went undrafted and signed to the Steelers 90-man roster. Obviously, being a hometown player, his progress will be followed extensively by fans. Galambos has good size and strength, and excels at getting off of his blocks. There are legitimate concerns about his overall athleticism, which leaves a good bit to be desired, and again, the deficit of speed at ILB does not help Galambos’ case. I think he will likely be competing for a spot on the practice squad.
A one-year starter at Kentucky, Huguenin was a little late to the game. However, his athletic measurables are solid and he has potential to be an explosive player. This is a guy that is less of a known commodity, so excelling in training camp and OTAs will be crucial. He’s listed at DE but will likely be working out as an LB, primarily as a situational interior rusher. It does help that he has the ability to play inside and outside, and if he excelled on the inside he has the explosiveness to be a long shot for a roster spot. With what we know, he’s a PS player.
Lots of red flags here, but Joey Porter is on record saying he has put in a call with the former Cardinal. Since being drafted in the second round in 2010, Washington has had numerous substance abuse issues, a domestic violence charge, and a hefty multi-year suspension. To top it all off, he is on record saying he would like to sign with the Cowboys. I guess it’s worth looking if the man has truly turned his life around and is able to contribute, but I would hope the Steelers front office plans to steer very far clear of Washington.
I included him because he could be available come final cuts and I miss seeing him in black and gold. I’m sure many fans remember Garvin as the guy who delivered a brutal hit on Kevin Huber vs. the Bengals in 2013, but for more background on Garvin, he is a converted college safety who played ILB for the Steelers from 2013 to 2016. He spent a year with the Redskins and signed with Seattle in March. However, as a player who is primarily special teamer, Garvin is no guarantee to make Seattle’s roster. As a former player who is familiar with the system, the Steelers coaching staff would probably bring him in for special teams and ILB depth if he became available.
Will Adams make the roster? Will Pittsburgh bring in a free agent ILB? Could there be a surprise cut at OLB? Let us know in the comments below.