With the spotlight on the Steelers defensive back needs, it’s easy to overlook one other area of the defense that must be addressed: Inside Linebackers.
Steeler Nation has been clamoring for the Steelers to draft a top notch cornerback in the first round for about the last two years. Given the inconsistent (and sometimes dreadful) play of the secondary during that time, it stands to reason that fans would expect an upgrade. There’s a good chance they’ll get their wish next week when the draft commences.
But Inside Linebacker is a need that must also be filled. Sound ridiculous? At first, yes. After all, they’ve got Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier entrenched as the starters. Timmons is a proven commodity. He’s averaged 78 tackles per season since 2009. He’s also got 33 sacks for his career, not bad for an inside backer in the 3-4 defense whose primary responsibility is to stuff the run.
Shazier is an up and coming star. He’s shown exceptional athletic ability and a capacity for making big hits (just ask Giovani Bernard).
The Steelers lost dependable backups Sean Spence and Terrance Garvin to free agency, but managed to sign reserve inside linebacker Steven Johnson. He should provide quality depth along with Vince Williams.
So, why do the Steelers need to address the position in this year’s draft?
Timmons is the anchor of the linebacking unit, but he also turns 30 in May and is headed into his 10th NFL season. There’s a good deal of wear on those tires. He’s also scheduled to become a UFA after the 2017-18 season.
Meanwhile, despite all his skills, Shazier has struggled with injuries during his first two years in the league, appearing in only 21 out of 32 games. We’ve yet to know for certain whether his lean size combined with his penchant for hard hits will enable him to remain healthy for the long haul.
Meanwhile, there are issues with the backups as well. Both Johnson and Williams are only signed through the end of this season.
How’s the inside linebackers position look now?
The Steelers need to draft at least one and maybe two players at the position. Perhaps they can get someone to groom as the heir apparent to Timmons, or at least add a solid depth player for the next few years. While the primary need on day one of the draft is defensive back, there are plenty of day two and day three prospects who could fulfill the Steelers’ needs.
Here are a few of them:
Kentrell Brothers, Missouri: Brothers is projected as a second round prospect. Reports are that he lacks a bit of size (he measures 6’0, 245 pounds) and speed (4.89 in the 40 yard dash) but makes up for it with his intelligence and knack for making big plays.
Tyler Matakevich, Temple: Might be an incredible steal for the Steelers in the third or fourth round. He’s the 2015 Bronco Nagurski award winner, and was considered an exceptional teammate at Temple. According to NFL.com, he’s a “film junkie who understands that maximum preparation is essential to his production and success.” Matakevich started all four years for the Owls and made 100 tackles each of those seasons.
Scooby Wright, Arizona: Similar to Matekevich, Wright doesn’t possess blazing speed or size, but has a fierce competitiveness and great instincts. As a sophomore, he won the Bronco Nagurski Trophy, the Rotary Lombardi Award, and the Chuck Bednarik Award. His 2015 season was cut short by injuries, and his numbers at the combine were somewhat underwhelming. That being said, Wright is known best for what’s most important on the field: making plays.
B.J. Goodson, Clemson: Goodson has caught the eyes of a number of teams recently, due partly to his impressive combine numbers (4.69 in the 40 yard dash and 34.5 inch vertical). He’s been on the radar of the Colts, Broncos, and Jaguars among others. If still there in the third round, he may be worth the get.
The Wild Card
One player the Steelers may want to consider is Notre Dame star, Jaylon Smith. Smith was projected as a potential top 10 pick until he tore his MCL and LCL in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. Now, his future is uncertain, and it’s suggested that he may be sidelined for the entire 2016 season.
The former Butkus award winner may very well be on the board in the mid to late rounds, or he could be snatched up sooner. It depends on whether a team is willing to take a chance on his knee.
The Steelers should know something about players coming back from a bad knee injury. Sean Spence’s career was considered over by many, but he overcame the odds. The same could be true for Smith. Spence, while good, isn’t as explosive a talent as Smith. If and when Smith recovers, he could develop into an elite player.
It’s an interesting possibility. Would the Steelers be inclined to draft Jaylon Smith, essentially redshirt him in 2016, and eventually groom him to slide into Timmons’ spot in 2017 or 2018? It just might be worth the wait, and the payoff could be huge.