For the first time this century, two off-the-ball linebackers were taken in the first 10 selections of an NFL draft, with fifth-overall pick Devin White, who went to Tampa Bay, joining the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Devin Bush. The Steelers traded all the way up from 20 to collect their man, but according to reports, the Denver Broncos were going to take him if the trade was not made.
Why were these two players taken where they were? It’s not simply because they are such rare talents globally speaking, although their gifts don’t come along incredibly frequently either. It has quite a bit to do with where the game has been heading, where superior speed and coverage ability are among the primary qualities desired from inside linebackers.
“With everything that comes with the game now, the game is definitely not, ‘get in big packages and run power football all day”, he told Jenny Vrentas. “The league is getting a lot of playmakers, and they want to put them all in space to create matchups. Me and Devin White are great matchups with running backs or faster guys that a lot of these bigger linebackers, 6′ 2″ or 6′ 3″, 250 pounds, can’t really keep up with. We are two unique players, and don’t come around very often”.
The shift toward a greater emphasis on the inside linebacker position—really, I should say re-emphasis—was already felt last season when we saw four inside linebackers go in the first round, all within the first 22 picks, the last being Rashaan Evans. The Steelers reportedly tried to trade up for him, and when that failed, they never got back into the inside linebacker market.
As a byproduct of that, of course, they ended up taking a very aggressive approach this offseason that started with signing Mark Barron in free agency—an inside linebacker who is a former safety—and ending with the selection of Bush following a big trade up in the first round.
“Me and [Devin White], we are kind of like two charms of the new style of football”, he said. By charms he is referring to players who can be used as chess pieces to move around the unit to match up with whatever needs are presented by the offensive look.
Added White, “I feel like if you’re a three-down linebacker, then you deserve to go as high as possible”. He continued, “the game is speeding up, and backs are not just like downhill backs. They’re backs like Alvin Kamara, [who] you can put at receiver, and you’ve gotta have somebody to go cover them. You don’t want to keep putting safeties on the field, because what if they motion them back in, [and] now you have to put that safety in the box. So, it’s fitting”.
The Steelers are certainly hoping Bush will be the perfect fit for their defense, considering the cost of acquiring him and the difficulties they have had without a player with his sort of range in the middle of the defense over the course of the past season-plus since Ryan Shazier last played a down.