Much of the final day of the 2016 NFL Draft was a drag for those following the Pittsburgh Steelers, considering the significant delay that existed between their first and second selections of the day, but they finished the evening off with three selections in a 27-selection span, and two of those draft cards had written on them the names of linebackers.
With the 45th selection in the sixth round, as a compensatory pick, the Steelers selected 6’4”, 230-pound outside linebacker Travis Feeney out of Washington. Just 26 spots later, they drafted 6-foot, 238-pound inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich out of Temple. Because of course the Steelers drafted linebackers.
Not that there was no cause, of course. Pittsburgh did lose two inside linebackers in free agency, with Sean Spence, their top reserve at the mack position, signing with the Titans and special teams standout Terence Garvin leaving for Washington, whom they play in the season opener, after they did not offer him a restricted free agent tender.
The Steelers still had inside linebackers, of course. Aside from starters Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons, there is still Vince Williams, who has been around for three years already and has starting experience. L.J. Fort finished the regular season on the 53-man roster, and Jordan Zumwalt is still lurking in the shadows. They also added Steven Johnson, a veteran special teamer, in free agency on a one-year deal with no guaranteed money.
Of course, the back end is not exactly a murderer’s row. Fort has largely been a career special teamer and is a journeyman. Zumwalt has spent his first two seasons on injured reserve as a former late-round pick. Johnson has also been around the league already.
Add in the fact that Timmons and Williams are in the final years of their contracts—and watch Matekevich’s tape, where he seems to make every tackle for his defense—and it quickly becomes easier to understand why the Steelers added to the inside linebacker position in spite of the fact that they already have the numbers there.
As for Feeney, while the Steelers return five outside linebackers from the 2015 season roster, only two of them are under contract beyond the 2016 season, with James Harrison sure to retire after this year and Jarvis Jones’ future in doubt. Anthony Chickillo would be easily enough retained after this season as an exclusive rights free agent, of course.
But Feeney’s physical traits proved hard to pass up. With elite positional speed as a former safety, he is still working to bulk up his frame, but it’s unclear how far he might have left to go, and, of course, the Steelers have not been shy about having players a bit smaller, especially if they have the speed.
Clearly his priority this offseason will be to get in the weight room, and he’ll have all the motivation he needs with Harrison looming over him. Obviously, neither Feeney nor Matakevich have anything set in stone—there were over 200 players selected ahead of them after all—but one this is for sure, and that is that the Steelers didn’t sit on their hands when it comes to addressing present and future depth questions at linebacker.