I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday weekend here in the states. It was a good, brief time away from the world of football, but today we jump back into the swing of things here at Steelers Depot with the next edition of the Ranking the Rooms: AFC North series.
I left off last week with the defensive lines in the division, so today I move into the linebacker rooms. Now, for some clarification: while every team doesn’t run the same system, I’m putting 3-4 and 4-3 linebackers into the same room. This is based purely on the linebackers on the roster, with very little distinction. While they are asked to do different things in each system, they’re still linebackers in the end.
Just stick with me here.
Let’s get started.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers ranked last in both OLB and ILB rankings last summer. This year though, after some serious work done by general manager Kevin Colbert, the linebackers’ room looks like a major strength for the Steelers.
Pittsburgh signed Mark Barron in free agency and traded up 10 spots in the 2019 NFL Draft to grab potential star inside linebacker Devin Bush out of Michigan. Pair that with a budding star in outside linebacker TJ Watt, and stout veteran inside linebacker Vince Williams and things are starting to look really good in the Steel City at linebacker.
Bud Dupree has mostly been a disappointment from the perspective of sack numbers, but he’s able to apply pressure opposite Watt and has developed into a decent run defender. He’s certainly not worth the salary he’ll earn in 2019, but if he can just get through a season completely healthy, I think we can see that athletic pass rusher emerge.
As for Watt, he’s on the cusp of superstardom in the NFL. Last season was a huge breakout for the former first-round pick, and it looks like it will only get better moving forward for the outside linebacker.
Inside, the trio of Bush, Barron, and Williams is a massive upgrade over the Williams/Jon Bostic pairing last season. Williams could be pushed to the bench with the addition of Barron, but make no mistake about it: the Steelers are loaded at inside linebacker.
Depth-wise, the Steelers don’t look great there, especially on the outside, but they do have some key guys with experience, highlighted by outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo, and inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich.
Second-year player Ola Adeniyi is a fan favorite at outside linebacker and could take a significant step forward, but he’s barely played real NFL snaps, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Rookies Sutton Smith and Ulysses Gilbert provide intriguing young options at outside and inside linebacker respectively, but it’s pretty much a given that only one of them will make the 53-man roster.
2. Cleveland Browns
While the Browns did end up cutting Jamie Collins Jr. this offseason, Cleveland still has a really strong linebacker room on the shores of Lake Erie.
Christian Kirksey is a personal favorite and is vastly underrated in NFL circles. He’s a tackling machine that always finds himself around the football. The same goes for Joe Schobert, who had a huge breakout season in 2018. Schoebert certainly isn’t the most athletic linebacker in the league, but he’s an instinctive linebacker that reads his keys well and flows to the football well.
Replacing Collins will be free agent signee Adarius Taylor and second-year linebacker Genard Avery. Taylor played well last season for Tampa Bay and could really take a step forward in Cleveland’s loaded defense, while Avery came on strong last season, moving into an off-ball role.
Behind the starters, Cleveland probably has the best depth – at least on paper – with rookies Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki and veteran Ray-Ray Armstrong. Wilson could wind up being a steal in the end with the right coaching.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
After finally jettisoning malcontent Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals appear to be headed in the right direction at linebacker once again.
Heading into the 2019 season, the trio of Preston Brown, Nick Vigil, and Jordan Evans are projected to be the starters. Brown is a tackling machine, while Vigil provides the high-end athleticism and upside the starters really need. Evans provides the physicality that Burfict took with him, albeit in a clean fashion.
Behind the projected starters, Cincinnati’s depth is quite impressive, highlighted by veterans Malik Jefferson and Hardy Nickerson, and rookies Germaine Pratt and Deshaun Davis.
Jefferson hasn’t quite panned out since the Bengals drafted him two years ago, but this could be the year where he overtakes a guy like Brown to grab a starting job. Pratt is a guy I was really high on coming out of NC State and I think he found a great landing spot in Cincinnati. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him grab a starting spot this season as well, likely over Evans.
4. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens lost CJ Mosley, Za’Darius Smith, and Terrell Suggs in free agency, and didn’t do much of anything to address the linebacker positions in free agency and the draft. What was once a strength on defense is now a glaring weakness.
At outside linebacker, Matthew Judon returns as the lone proven pass rusher, while Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser provide perceived upside and high ceilings despite failing to produce much of anything. Baltimore did grab Jaylon Ferguson in the draft and will likely expect quite a bit out of the NCAA’s all-time sacks leader, but there’s just not much there for me to get excited about with the stiff, unathletic Ferguson.
Baltimore also brought in Shane Ray in free agency to try and address the pass rushing deficiency the franchise now possesses, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy at all in his career.
Inside, the Ravens will try to replace Mosley with Kenny Young, Alvin Jones, and Chris Board. Not great!
Young has the athleticism to fit in nicely next to Patrick Onwuasor inside, but he hasn’t been able to put it all together and is losing ground to Jones and Board in the battle for the starting job from all accounts. Keep an eye on rookies EJ Ejiya and Otaro Alaka inside as well. Both will likely be special teams demons right away, but they could work their way onto the field defensively.