Ranking The Rooms: AFC North ILBs

For the third straight year, we’re continuing the Ranking the Rooms: AFC North series here at Steelers Depot. You can find the latest rankings here. Today, we’ll move to the heart of the defense, taking a look at the AFC North ILB rooms.

I’ll personally run down each position, starting with the quarterbacks in the division, and ending with specialists in this 10-part series.

In case you forgot the rankings from last summer, I have you covered.

Here is the 2017 Ranking the Rooms:  AFC North ILB list:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Cincinnati Bengals
  • Cleveland Browns
  • Baltimore Ravens

Let’s check in on the 2018 list to see how the division shakes out at inside linebacker.

1. Cleveland Browns

No team has arguably done more to reshape their inside linebackers room than the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns could have stood pat and rested on their laurels with Christian Kirksey manning the middle for Cleveland, but the Browns took advantage of the free agency market late in the game, as Cleveland quickly snatched up veteran Mychal Kendricks on a one-year deal after the Philadelphia Eagles cut him loose.

Kirksey is already one of the best sideline-to-sideline inside linebackers in the game today. Adding a proven guy like Kendricks for depth makes this a stacked group for the Browns, who also boast James Burgess Jr., and BJ Bello behind the two veterans.

Cleveland takes a big leap forward from last year to this year, but with a guy like Kirksey headlining the group, and a solid player in Kendricks right behind him, the Browns have the best ILB room in the division.

2. Baltimore Ravens

Any team that has CJ Mosley on the roster at inside linebacker has a bit of an advantage, even if the Ravens finished last on this list last year.

Mosley continues to be a dominant football player for the Ravens, and that should be the case once again in 2018. This time though, Mosley has some stability next to him inside, as Patrick Onwuasor returns this season, while Kamalei Correa, Bam Bradley, and rookie Kenny Young add depth to the room.

Before the season is over, I’m betting Young takes over Onwuasor’s spot next to Mosley. Young was a guy I liked coming out of UCLA, so of course he went to a division foe in the Ravens.

The loss of Zach Orr last offseason to retirement was a blow that the Ravens never really recovered from, but they’re in much better shape this season.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

Gone is veteran stalwart Rey Maualuga, but in steps underrated Preston Brown, who comes over from the Buffalo Bills in free agency to take over the starting middle linebacker job for the Bengals.

Brown has played in 64 career games, and has averaged roughly 4.5 tackles per game, albeit in a limited role in Buffalo. He’ll now get a chance to hold down a starting job playing a full season’s worth of snaps for the Bengals. Brown will help improve the Bengals’ run defense.

Behind Brown, do-everything veteran Vincent Rey returns. He has ample starting experience, and produces consistently when called upon. You love to have those types of guys on the roster.

Second-year players Brandon Bell and Hardy Nickerson Jr. round out the middle linebackers room for the Bengals as of now. Bell is a decent athlete that can provide some juice on special teams, while Nickerson certainly has the bloodlines to carve out a role moving forward with the Bengals.4

4. Pittsburgh Steelers

The loss of Ryan Shazier simply deflates the inside linebackers room quite a bit for the Steelers, as evidenced by a fall from No. 1 last year to No. 4 this year. There’s no replacing Shazier, as the Steelers found out quickly last season.

There’s no telling if, or when, he’ll ever return to football, so the Steelers have to move on, at least for now. Tied up cap-wise, the Steelers brought in veteran Jon Bostic to fill Shazier’s spot on the defense. Plain and simple, that’s a huge downgrade, and that’s not a knock on Bostic, who is a solid linebacker.

He just won’t be able to do the things Shazier did, so the Steelers will have to get creative to try and replace Shazier’s abilities. Along with Bostic, Vince Williams holds down the ILB room in the Steelers’ 3-4.

Williams was a pleasant surprise last season in his first go-around as a full-time starter. He can rush the passer, plays well against the run, and brings a needed physical element to the defense. He should take another step forward in ’18.

Behind those two, the Steelers don’t have much to get excited about.

Tyler Matakevich is a fine player who does most of his damage on special teams, but he’s not a guy you want starting a number of games in a season. He just doesn’t have the athleticism needed for the position in today’s game.

LJ Fort is a guy who has an argument for more playing time, thanks to his athletic abilities, while Keith Kelsey and Matt Galambos will battle it out for a roster spot coming training camp in July.

Matthew Thomas is the real wild card here. If he makes the team, he could see playing time right away. That’s the jenga piece to replace Shazier’s athletic ability. At least, that’s how I see it currently.

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