Seven draft picks. Thirteen undrafted free agents. One inside linebacker. I know – the math doesn’t seem to add up. And for many fans, the biggest takeaway of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 draft is the lack of an inside linebacker. After all, it was the position they brought in the most in the pre-draft process and was by all accounts, a need for the team.
So what gives? Whether you agree with it or not, and I’m not saying I even agree, here’s my best explanation.
Obviously, what Kevin Colbert said about the inside linebacker class back at the Combine was him being honest. To him, the inside linebacker class wasn’t strong, save for a few playmakers at the top. Last Monday, going more in-depth about the draft, Colbert noted how few four down players there were, how the position has evolved into a group of specialists.
“The inside linebackers are changing as the college game has changed,” Colbert said. “They maybe do one thing really well. Maybe they rush the passer better than they cover. Maybe they’re better zone droppers than they are man defenders. Very few of them are really, what you say, four down type players. Some of them are two down, some of them are three, some of them are one down. They might only be special teamers.”
Translation: better get someone at the top or else you’re stuck with a player who has some obvious weaknesses.
And reportedly, Pittsburgh did. There have been several reports the Steelers made a push to trade up for Rashaan Evans, part of the “big four” of inside linebackers along with Roquan Smith, Tremaine Edmunds, and Leighton Vander Esch. Ultimately, that didn’t happen, Tennessee nabbed Evans and the Steelers were left holding the bag.
The goal wasn’t just to address the inside linebacker position. It was the Mack position. That can’t be a specialized position. The Buck, Vince Williams’ spot, has a different requirement. It can be specialized, Williams gets removed on all dime snaps, meaning there doesn’t need to be as heavy an emphasis on coverage. But the Mack? As we’ve covered, that player has to do it all. After those few four-down players were taken off the board, there wasn’t a good enough fit for someone to fill that role – in their minds, anyway.
Again, feel free to disagree, and I might be right there with you, but I think that’s the rationale. They weren’t going to draft a player who fit that requirement and no one in future rounds carried a high enough grade compared to the players they took.
Instead, they went with a different approach. Adding Marcus Allen, who could play in that dime linebacker role, though probably not in 2018, as the NFL becomes a hybrid-heavy, sub-package world. A guy like that can cover better than most linebackers and what he gives up against the run is mitigated by the fact he isn’t playing on run-oriented downs. He’ll be used on third and medium/long where in 2017, offenses only ran the ball 12.5% of the time on 3rd and 5+, and I’m not even factoring out late-game situations where a team is burning clock.
The Steelers have several options, in the short and long-term, to play in that role. Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, and Allen, all either have done it or have the traits to succeed in that role.
Long story short: the position couldn’t have a specialist and that’s all the Steelers were left with. Instead of forcing the issue, they punted.
The other factor? It’s not as significant but the team truly is high on Tyler Matakevich. Again, not about if you agree, just explaining their thinking. Wrapping up the draft, Colbert – who talked about Dirty Red earlier in the offseason – reiterated his confidence in him.
“Tyler Matakevich, he got hurt in the same quarter that Ryan did. Had he not gotten injured, we might have had a whole different discussion going on. Because Tyler is a very highly productive special teams player who hasn’t gotten to play. So between [Jon Bostic] and Tyler, we don’t know what we have in those two. Because Jon is new to us and Tyler will be in the rotation, the competition as well.”
Colbert wrapped the thought up by saying the team didn’t want to reach for a player just to grab a certain position, and obviously, they held true to that.
Jon Bostic is someone who has been in that three down role. Just as importantly, he’s going to be counted on as the signal caller, one of the key communicators, and there are consequences to taking him off the field, especially if he’s being replaced by a rookie.
Time’s going to tell if that’s the right move. It’s fair to be concerned about the position, in the short and the long-term. But the Steelers plan was to address inside linebacker as soon as possible. When it became evident that couldn’t happen, they adjusted and changed their strategy.