At virtually every position on the football field, speed has become increasingly important over time. perhaps no position has seen the value of pure speed rise in recent years more than at linebacker, particularly inside linebacker, with the rise in prominence of running backs and tight ends who function as primary passing targets. Today’s inside linebackers have to keep up with these new-age players who can be glorified wide receivers.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were sorely missing that speed component from the middle of their defense last season with Ryan Shazier unable to participate. He and his pure speed—not to mention his diagnostic capabilities—were in the process of transforming the defense when he suffered a career-pausing injury in December of 2017.
So after a year of watching Jon Bostic and Tyler Matakevich run around, the Steelers drafted three athletic and quick linebackers, including the 10th-overall pick, Devin Bush, but also sixth-round selections Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert III, a pair of MAC products from Northern Illinois and Akron, respectively.
Following yesterday’s rookie minicamp practice, Head Coach Mike Tomlin spoke to the media for the first time since on-field work got underway. Among the questions that he addressed was whether or not the team prioritized speed over size in some of the decisions they made during the draft at the linebacker position.
He called it “a factor”, but “not the determining factor. Speed is always going to be an element to this thing relative to these positions and speed is an element for those guys”. Provided that you have the right personnel on the field to match up with what your opponents have out there, being the fastest player at your position is always going to be an advantage.
There probably are not going to be a ton of situations in which Bush is not at least as fast as the person he’s going to be asked to cover. He just has that kind of speed. But his diagnostic skills will first have to catch up to the NFL game speed, not to mention the learning curve of adjusting to a new defensive language, a process he’s going through right now.
As the coaching staff talked about after they drafted Shazier, a player with Bush’s speed can get away with more mistakes because he’ll be able to correct some of them simply by running his way back into a play. That also helps them get on the field sooner.
As far as Smith and Gilbert go, they’re definitely smaller for their respective positions as a whole, so their quickness is going to be paramount to their ability to succeed at the NFL level on the defensive side of the ball.