I don’t want to jump the gun, but it looks as though the Pittsburgh Steelers may have found themselves a player in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Granted, they had three swings at it, all on the defensive side of the football going even one out of three that late in the draft is nothing to sneeze at.
No, it wasn’t the first of those picks, outside linebacker Sutton Smith, who did not play in the game. Although he appeared to do alright for himself, it wasn’t the middle selection, defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs, either.
Instead, it was the MAC attack, Akron inside linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III, who was one of the stars of the second half of last night’s victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Officially, he finished the game with three tackles, a sack and a half, and a forced fumble, but his impact was bigger than that.
The rookie was tough to block, able to use his athleticism to keep himself clean and to flow to the ball in open spaces. He showed his coverage ability while defending a two-point conversion attempt as well, jumping in front of the target and intercepting the football.
Gilbert had been showing his sideline-to-sideline athleticism in training camp, but there is always the question as to whether or not that is going to translate to the inside of a stadium. For his first taste of an NFL opponent, I think it’s fair to say that he passed, even with flying colors.
One thing that was evident was simply his speed. His 40-yard dash time from his Pro Day workout of 4.51 seconds was on display on several plays throughout the night, including his strip sack, as well as his chasedown of a screen pass that flowed away from him. Had he note caught up with the play, it’s possible it could have gone for a score.
Another thing worth noting is that he got his work on special teams. He was on the first-team kick coverage unit to start the game. If he can stand out in that phase, then he can quickly put himself in the conversation for a roster spot later on in the process.
Even if he continues to blossom in the preseason, however, it’s hard to see a clear path to playing time for him, as he can realistically ascend no higher than fourth on the depth chart right now at inside linebacker after the Steelers added free agent Mark Barron and first-rounder Devin Bush to the incumbent Vince Williams at inside linebacker already.
There is also veteran Tyler Matakevich, who while able to make plays defensively in the preseason—he had a strip sack of his own during the game—the Steelers seem largely resigned to accept as a standout special teams contributor.
His biggest issue will be the numbers game, and his most direct competition may end up being Tuzar Skipper, the rookie outside linebacker out of Toledo, a fellow MAC. Smith, also from the MAC, could emerge on special teams later in the preseason as well to compete for a ninth linebacker spot.