The Pittsburgh Steelers cut linebacker Mark Barron this offseason. Is second-year linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III ready to fill his role on defense?
The Steelers cut ties with Mark Barron after a less than stellar 2019 season. Barron was due over $8.1 million this season, and getting out of the 30-year-old linebacker’s contract was a no-brainer this offseason.
However, with Pittsburgh losing both Barron and Tyler Matakevich this offseason, depth at inside linebacker has quickly become an issue. Surprisingly, the Steelers did nothing this offseason through the NFL Draft or free agency to add to the position.
Was it a lack of money or insufficient draft capital? Perhaps it just shows their level of confidence in 2019 draft choice, Ulysees Gilbert III.
Gilbert was only a 6th round pick out of Akron last year, and he didn’t log a single defensive snap during his rookie season. However, it’s not hard to understand why the Steelers could have confidence in him.
Gilbert was phenomenal during the preseason – grading out as one of the best players on the team week after week. He seemed to be all over the field in the action that he saw, and he was no stranger to making splash plays. Gilbert recorded both a sack and an interception in the endzone that saved a touchdown in the preseason despite limited playtime.
Though Devin Bush and Vince Williams are the Steelers starting linebackers in their base defense, Barron nearly doubles Williams in the number of snaps he played last season. Williams has proven to be a good run defender and is excellent at going downhill and blitzing, but he becomes a liability against the pass.
Because of this, Barron saw the bulk of snaps in sub-packages. However, his play in coverage was nothing to write home about. Barron allowed 73.2 percent of passes to be completed on his watch, and surrendered a 96.1 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Reference.
Gilbert had some consistency issues in college with tackling, but his ability to cover and move well in space is what drew the Steelers to him. While these abilities are completely untested in regular-season action, his ability to turn and run with skill players in the preseason was more than encouraging.
It’s entirely possible that Pittsburgh’s plan is to have Ulysees Gilbert take on Mark Barron’s role as a subpackage linebacker this season. Gilbert now has a year of knowing the playbook under his belt, and though he was just a 6th round draft choice, they may have enough confidence in him to take that next leap forward.
For now, we should hold off on expectations that suspect he will be anything more than a rotational linebacker for the Steelers in 2020. However, if he proves his worth in Mark Barron’s former role, it may not be long before he is earning more snaps than Vince Williams as well. Today’s NFL is a passing league, and Gilbert may be suited for it.