In case you haven’t noticed, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ profile at linebacker has certainly changed over the years. With the exception of the seventh-round flier in Tyler Matakevich, who is still holding on to a special teams spot, the players they have taken since Ryan Shazier in the first round of 2014 have been a different breed.
That includes the likes of Travis Feeney and, to a lesser extent, Jordan Zumwalt, but the 2019 NFL Draft makes it especially obvious with Devin Bush, Sutton Smith, and Ulysees Gilbert III. Mark Barron, signed in free agency, is also of a more athletic variety, having come into the league as a safety.
Provided that these players are able to represent themselves well, it will be interesting to see how the Steelers and Keith Butler employ them. One thing that the defensive coordinator mentioned during his post-draft press conference to discuss the selection of Smith was the use of the 3-5-3 package at the college level and how that is contributing to the production of these new, more athletic inside linebackers.
“What everybody does nowadays in college is, they get in walk-away positions, what I call walk-away positions. Everybody is running this 3-5-3 stuff. And that 3-5-3, two of those five on the front line are usually walked out on wide receivers and stuff like that”, Butler said.
“Sometimes you bring them in and you bring them off the edge and rush off the edge, and that’s what everyone in college is doing now”, he went on while answering a question about Smith. “He’s kind of a little bit of both”.
Butler also mentioned Genard Avery a late-round pick of the Cleveland Browns last season who was a significant contributor as a rookie and will have a bigger role this year. “I think the kid from Memphis last year did the same thing. He ended up making the team in Cleveland. He acclimated very well into the NFL. We need guys that can play in space”.
Perhaps seeing the sort of success that Avery had breaking into the league as a fifth-round pick caught the Steelers’ eye and helped to influence their desire to add more of this sort of player to their own roster. They started to lean more on L.J. Fort late in the year, but they lost him in free agency. Avery recorded one of his four and half sacks against the Steelers in Week One, forcing a fumble.
If Pittsburgh is going to continue putting its inside linebackers into disadvantageous coverage situations against wide receivers, then they might as well use players who have the athleticism to run with them. That’s the thinking as the league continues to be more and more pass-oriented and defenders have to be increasingly more mobile.