Now that veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons has decided to sign a free agent contract with the Miami Dolphins, it’s not hard to imagine that Vince Williams will be asked to fill his shoes in the middle of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense moving forward. While that might ultimately be the case, the Steelers could still decide to go the free agent route in hopes of finding a little more athleticism at the position.
While it might sound like a reach to suggest the Steelers will sign any free agents moving forward being as they’ve yet to do so as the first weekend of the new league year comes to a close, there are still a few unsigned free agent middle linebackers who might become huge bargains in the coming days. In fact, two of them, Zach Brown (84.1) and Gerald Hodges (82.4), both graded out very well last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
As for Brown, who was originally selected by the Tennessee Titans in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft out of North Carolina, he recorded 149 total tackles in 2016 with the Buffalo Bills and only Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner had more. Brown also recorded four sacks last season and intercepted two passes of which one came in the Bills loss to the Steelers. Brown was ultimately named a second-team All-Pro and made the AFC Pro Bowl team.
Three months ago, PFF ranked Brown as the 10th best 2016 offseason free agent signings and here is what they wrote about him:
If you saw Brown finally emerging as a playmaking linebacker in his fifth season in the league, congratulations, you’re smarter than just about every GM in the NFL. Brown was signed for a measly one-year, $1.25 million deal this offseason after his career never quite got off the ground in Tennessee. Blessed with immense physical gifts, Brown was never quite able to translate them to the football field until Rex Ryan got ahold of him. Brown’s 53 total stops are the most of any linebacker in the league, and he’s earned the 14th-highest-grade of any off-ball linebacker this season.
With that glowing review now out of the way, PFF wrote a few weeks ago that Brown’s play did drop off at the end of the season:
A player that started the 2016 on fire, Brown struggled down the stretch as he graded positively in just two of his final eight games after doing so in all of his first eight games. Brown has posted back to back above-average-graded seasons in coverage and graded well against the run for the first time in his career in 2016. Fourth amongst all ILBs with 38 run stops, Brown showed potential for becoming a complete LB but considering his late-season decline and never doing so in any other season, there will be concern, which could lower his market value.
As for Hodges, who was originally selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft out of Penn State, he also had a very productive 2016 season, his second with the San Francisco 49ers, who traded for him in October of 2015. Hodges recorded 83 total tackles last season in addition to three sacks and two interceptions and here is what PFF wrote about him ahead of the start of free agency:
Acquired by the 49ers in a trade with the Vikings, Hodges struggled in his first year with the new team but took a big step in 2016. Hodges has graded well in run defense in his career and has posted solid grades the past two seasons rushing the passer when asked to do so. The concern for the former Penn State Nittany Lion are his inconsistencies in coverage, which will limit his ceiling. While he showed improvement in that area — yielding a career low 87.3 passer rating when targeted — he was also targeted a career-low 24 times in 2016 while still allowing 2 touchdowns.
Now, the Steelers certainly won’t be willing to break the bank for either Brown or Hodges, nor should they, and within that is the fact that both players figure to start receiving some serious attention from other NFL teams now that the first big wave of prime free agent signings is coming to a close. Both players are still very much on the right side of 30 years of age and thus it’s not hard to imagine that each will ultimately sign two or three-year contracts in the coming days or weeks.
Even if the Steelers were to ultimately land either Brown or Hodges with a very reasonable contract, it wouldn’t prevent the team from still addressing the inside linebacker position at any point during the 2017 NFL Draft should a player of their liking fall to them.
After Timmons signed with the Dolphins, the Steelers inside linebacker depth chart now includes the aforementioned Williams, starter Ryan Shazier, Tyler Matakevich and Steven Johnson in addition to a few street free agent roster bodies picked up early in the offseason. Matakevich and Johnson are more special team and backup players than anything else so that needs to be acknowledged.
It will be interesting to see if the Steelers make a move to bring Brown or Hodges in for free agent visits starting as early as next week. While it’s been 15 years ago since it happened, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert struck free agent gold at the inside linebacker position when he decided to sign James Farrior in 2002. The signing of Farrior happened after veteran inside linebacker Earl Holmes decided to sign a free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns. Sound familiar?
Colbert might ultimately decide to move forward with Williams, however, but even if that happens, the team would still be wise to address the inside linebacker position at some point in the 2017 NFL Draft just the same.