The Pittsburgh Steelers came into the 2018 NFL Draft looking to grab an inside linebacker with their first-round draft pick. As the position came screaming off the board during the first round—the first time in years that for off-ball linebackers were drafted in the first round—they attempted to trade up for the last one, Rashaan Evans, but the Tennessee Titans beat them to the punch. They ended up trading with the Baltimore Ravens, who would not have dealt with the Steelers in that context anyway.
Once the top four names came and went without their having an opportunity to take any of them, the Steelers seemed to decide that the rest of the names available would not be capable of coming in and being an instant starter, and so focused on other positions instead. It was not until they got around to bringing in undrafted free agents that they added to the position in Florida State linebacker Matthew Thomas, who is the only rookie in the group.
And he is not lacking for confidence as he heads into his first training camp. Asked about what he believes he is capable of going in the NFL back during minicamp, he told Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “I can definitely be the type of playmaker [the Steelers] are looking for”.
Pittsburgh is attempting to replace one of the most dynamic playmakers at the inside linebacker position in the NFL, that being Ryan Shazier. He made a play on the ball on over 15 percent of his targets last season, which was by far the most of any other player at his position, and that included three interceptions and 11 passes defensed. He got his hands on 26 passes over the course of the past two years, during 25 games played.
“I definitely think I can play here and up to the level of [Shazier and Lawrence Timmons, the linebackers who preceded him]. It’s just all a matter of time and putting in the work”, he told the reporter. “I definitely want to come in and try to learn the best I can and contribute the best I can, however that is”.
Realistically, there is a roster spot up for grabs at the inside linebacker position, perhaps even two. It’s safe to assume that the top three players at the position are Vince Williams and some combination of Tyler Matakevich and Jon Bostic, but the number four spot, and perhaps a fifth, are available for the taking.
The other inside linebackers currently on the roster are veteran L.J. Fort, who was a small part of a rotation in replacing Shazier at the end of last season, and Keith Kelsey and Matt Galambos, a pair of first-year former college free agents who were signed in 2017 and spent time on the practice squad.
It’s not a stretch to speculate that Thomas is the most talented player of that group, but he certainly has to do his part and earn a roster spot over the course of the next month and a half.