Over the course of recent years it is clear that an emphasis on athleticism and playmaking ability has been placed throughout the NFL. These categories now dominate the conversation. The linebacker position has not evaded this focused attention, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are riding the wave. If the draft selections of Ryan Shazier (’14) and Bud Dupree (’15) didn’t make this clear, the 2016 drafting of Tyler Matakevich (Temple) and Travis Feeney (Washington) does.
The concept of the bulky, brutally strong, run stuffing linebacker is fading and a new identity is forming. In today’s NFL it’s about chasing down the ball carrier, playing sideline to sideline, timing the snap while rushing the edge and most of all, making game-changing plays. Shazier showed last year that he can run with the best of them, and can make some impactful plays to boot. While Dupree had his struggles, he showed great promise and faster growth than Jarvis Jones did in his rookie year back in 2013. Now add in Matakevich and Feeney to the mix, and the Steelers have shown they’re evolving with the game, and they may even be somewhat ahead of it.
The Steelers are on the brink of a linebacking corps made up of young, smart and athletic talent. While Lawrence Timmons has consistently led the team in tackles while being the cornerstone of the defense, he’s gearing up for his 10th NFL season and subsequently is in the final year of his contract. Perhaps this is perfect timing for the Steelers. No doubt they’re pleased with Timmons’ contributions wearing the black and gold, why wouldn’t they be? But there’s also no doubt they’re preparing for the next in line.
With the loss of Sean Spence and Terence Garvin, this team was looking to add depth at inside linebacker. They potentially found their man in the seventh round when drafting Matakevich. They also nabbed themselves an outside linebacker in Feeney just one round earlier. Matakevich will likely battle Jordan Zumwalt for a possible 5th inside linebacker spot, while Feeney will look to use his speed on special teams immediately.
If Jarvis Jones doesn’t live up to expectations this year, he’s off to free agency. And this is likely the final year for the ageless James Harrison. This would create a glaring hole at outside linebacker that Feeney could look to fill. And with Timmons currently not under contract past 2016, Matakevich could potentially work his way up the depth chart in just his 2nd year. You may ask, isn’t this a bit early to be talking about a 6th and 7th round pick being starters? Perhaps. But let’s remember, as Ed Bouchette points out in his article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled, Steelers hope Feeney, Matakevich continue team’s history with late round linebackers, this wouldn’t be the first time a late round linebacker has risen to starting material, such as Joey Porter. He certainly turned out pretty well.
I’m not one to get caught up in measurables, so I don’t put too much weight into Matakevich’s 40 time, for instance. Or Feeny’s lack of bench press reps. Feeney is a fast son of a gun who can be seen flying around the field especially on special teams. And while Matakevich doesn’t fit the “athletic” mold, he makes plays. He finished his senior season with career highs in tackles for loss (15) and interceptions (5), while logging 126 total tackles (per owlsports.com). Personally I see Matakevich as being the more realistic take for being an eventual two-down starter, but Feeney could get there as well. Matakevich won the Chuck Bednarik award, mind you, which is given to the best college linebacker. And as Mike Tomlin said in his post-draft press conference on Steelers.com, “They don’t hand that out to anyone, particularly a guy who comes from a smaller program like Temple.”
While it’s way too early to tell whether these guys can make it in the league, or even make the roster this year, there’s optimism to be had. And don’t be surprised if they make a push for playing time sooner rather than later, because this group seems to be falling right into place at the right time.