After taking a look at the big uglies in the trenches on both sides of the ball last week for the “Ranking the Rooms: AFC North” series here at Steelers Depot, it’s now time to jump into the flashy positions on the defensive side of the ball, starting with inside linebackers today.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Once again, the Steelers reign supreme at inside linebacker thanks to the presence of budding superstar Ryan Shazier.
Last season, Shazier put up Pro Bowl-caliber numbers, but he did miss three games early in the season and missed a handful of tackles. However, the 2016 season was a very strong one for the Ohio State product, who took on a larger role for the Steelers defense.
Pittsburgh was dealt a big blow in free agency though when veteran stalwart Lawrence Timmons departed for Miami, forcing key backup linebacker and standout special teamer Vince Williams into the starting role next to Shazier.
In limited action over the last few seasons, Williams has been very good defensively for the Steelers, but we just don’t know yet how well he’ll hold up as a starter.
Behind Shazier and Williams, the Steelers have tackling machines in second-year pro Tyler Matakevich — who really impressed me last season — and veteran special teamer Steven Johnson, who missed most of the season with an ankle injury.
L.J. Fort should be listed here as well, but he can float back and forth between inside and outside.
I would have liked to see the Steelers address inside linebacker early in the draft as I had them taking Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan in the second round (Dolphins struck again), but adding Louisville’s Keith Kelsey as an undrafted free agent was an underrated move for the black and gold.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
Signing Kevin Minter away from the Arizona Cardinals in free agency was a great move by the Bengals, giving their defense a young, punishing tackler that can roam sideline to sideline, while pushing veteran Rey Maualuga out the door.
Behind Minter, veteran Vincent Rey returns, where he can play a key role on special teams while also being able to fill in for Minter in a pinch, playing at a high level when he’s on the field defensively.
Rookies Jordan Evans (Oklahoma) and Hardy Nickerson Jr. (Illinois) round out the middle linebacker room for the Bengals. Evans was a bit of a disappointment for the Sooners at times, while Nickerson transferred from Cal to Illinois to play for his father, Hardy Sr., for the Fighting Illini, where he was a solid tackler in the Big Ten.
I expect both to contribute heavily to special teams this season.
3. Cleveland Browns
Christian Kirksey, the man who just received a big extension from the Browns, is arguably one of the best sideline-to-sideline chase-and-tackle linebackers in all of football.
He’s criminally underrated across the league, but all he does is continue to put up massive numbers year after year. Maybe he’ll finally get the credit he’s due this season with a better team around him defensively.
But if Kirksey goes down, the Browns could be in trouble at middle linebacker in Gregg Williams’ 4-3 defense.
Behind Kirksey is veterans Tank Carder, Dominique Alexander, James Burgess and rookie BJ Bello.
Not exactly a picture of depth there with Cleveland.
Carder is a good special teamer who is as aggressive as they come on special teams units, while Alexander recorded just seven stops last season in 14 games playing mostly special teams.
Burgess and Bello are likely just camp bodies. While the depth certainly isn’t there with the Browns at middle linebacker, the starter — Kirksey — is as good as they come.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Disclaimer: I will forever be a fan of C.J. Mosley considering he’s an Alabama product and that just so happens to be my favorite college football program not named Penn State.
Mosley has been a force to reckon with at inside linebacker for the Ravens since he stepped into the NFL, but he battled injuries last year, resulting in lower numbers than normal.
I expect a return to dominance this season for Mosley, but losing fellow ILB Zachary Orr to retirement this off-season was a massive blow to the Ravens’ defensive plans.
Orr was one of the best 3-4 ILB’s in football last season, racking up a combined 132 tackles last season next to Mosley.
Now, the Ravens will look to guys like rookies Bam Bradley (Pittsburgh) and Donald Payne (Stetson), as well as veterans Patrick Onwuasor and Louis Lamar step up next to the standout Mosley.
However, I expect to see Albert McClellan finally settle on ILB after backing back and forth the past two seasons to really solidify the Ravens’ defense up the middle with Mosley alongside him.
Should McClellan land there, I could see the Ravens passing the Browns on this list, but for now McClellan is in limbo.
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