As a late-round pick out of the MAC conference, rookie inside linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III has a harder road than most not just to make the roster, but to simply adjust to the speed and performance of the game as it is played at the NFL level.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers’ third of three sixth-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft has shown that the transition hasn’t been a problem for him, and right now most expect him to be on the inside of the roster bubble, having shown an ability to contribute both defensively and on special teams.
As he heads into the final preseason game where he looks to clinch his spot on the team, he is not overthinking what’s the come tonight, nor what follows at the end of the week when the roster cuts are made. He has the confidence, not necessarily in his security with the team, but with himself.
“It’s just confidence. It continues to build each week”, he told reporters earlier this week. “All the guys continue to help you, all the vets continue to just put their arm around you and just make you be a better player. You just go out there and continue to play and you just have fun with the game. When you have fun with it, there’s not much that can really harm it. it’s a beautiful game, we love playing it. I love being fast and just playing around. It’s just a blessing to be here, and I’m just excited just to continue to play”.
While there is expected to be a lot of turnover at the inside linebacker position—three of the five players who were on the roster are no longer here, Jon Bostic having been released, L.J. Fort signed elsewhere in free agency, and Matthew Thomas not retained at the end of the year—that doesn’t mean there isn’t a veteran presence.
Vince Williams has been here since 2013, and he’s been a starter for the past two years. Tyler Matakevich is entering year four, both in the league and in the defense. Mark Barron is one of the oldest defensive players on the roster, and most experienced, even though this is his first year on the team, so there is plenty of veteran presence to help him along. And don’t forget about Ryan Shazier.
Much of the attention has been given to Devin Bush, the other athletic inside linebacker taken at the top of the draft, but Gilbert has turned some heads in the preseason. While a lot of players at the inside linebacker position are able to play up in the exhibition games, there’s no reason to be down on what the rookie has shown.
Anything he does tonight on special teams, however, is more significant than a big defensive performance. Make a tackle, throw a block, those are bigger than an interception, a forced fumble, a sack. He’s shown he can play there in the preseason. Where he needs to be an asset is on coverage units.