It can be seen as a major vote of confidence in Ulysees Gilbert III that the Pittsburgh Steelers failed to address the inside linebacker position during the 2020 NFL Draft. Or it could be seen as the unfortunate side effect of only having six draft picks and more positions than that that ostensibly needed to be addressed.
With the earlier release of Mark Barron, who was a primary starter along with rookie Devin Bush last season, the Steelers are now thin at inside linebacker, as Vince Williams returns to a full-time starting position. Their top two candidates to be the reserves have zero snaps in meaningful games as defenders.
Gilbert was a late sixth-round pick last year out of Akron. He played well enough, both defensively and on special teams, to force the Steelers to keep him as a fifth inside linebacker (and often, as a 10th linebacker in total), but he was limited to seven games because of a back injury that ended his season prematurely.
Though he did not get on defense, he played 150 snaps on special teams, and was on pace to log over 300 snaps in that department by the end of his rookie year. Now with Barron gone, and with the team failing to add any other pieces outside of futures signings and undrafted free agents (remember, even Tyler Matakevich is gone), the eyes are turning to the second-year man as the next man up, and possibly even as a situational player. But he’s not taking it as a given.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to continue to work, continue to be yourself and do what you need to do”, he told Brooke Pryor of ESPN last month. “You can’t get complacent knowing they didn’t draft any other linebackers or anything like that”.
A year after settling into a combination of Jon Bostic and L.J. Fort next to Williams by the end of the 2018 season, the Steelers aggressively addressed inside linebacker in 2019 with the signing of Barron in free agency, and then trading up in the first round to get Bush.
While Barron was released for (primarily) salary cap purposes, Bush should figure to play a major role this year as he takes the national stage. Williams is a been-there, done-that kind of guy, but they could also work to limit his snaps, substituting him out either for another linebacker or an extra defensive back.
Gilbert wants to be the guy, but he knows he’s not the only name out there, either on the roster or on the streets. “There are still people out there that want that spot”, he said. “There are people that want those spots”, and “I have to work like they did. That’s my mindset”.
There is some optimism and enthusiasm about what Gilbert can do, but until he does it, he remains a question mark. It’s worth remembering that similar hype followed Matthew Thomas in 2018, who earlier this year was in the XFL, and is now in the CFL.