For a sixth-round pick, Ulysees Gilbert III is sure eliciting a decent amount of excitement heading into his second season, as he is poised to ascend the depth chart to the top backup inside linebacker position, a role that could potentially even result in his playing some snaps on defense this year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Drafted out of Akron in 2019, he impressed during the preseason and in training camp, but with four players ahead of him on the depth chart, he was limited to work on special teams, where he logged 150 snaps in just seven games before he was sidelined with a back injury.
Now healthy, and with two of those four linebackers gone, only Devin Bush and Vince Williams stand in front of him, alongside Robert Spillane, who took his spot on the 53-man roster after he was moved to the reserve/injured list halfway through the year.
Even though he didn’t play on defense in games, he still feels a level of comfort in the pieces that have returned from last season as he moves into a part of his career in which he understands that more may be asked of him going forward.
“Just knowing there’s a group of guys I was here with last year and here again, it just makes it way more comfortable”, he told reporters on Tuesday after practice, “because at the end of the day, I didn’t get no game opportunities for defense, but in practice, I was able to play with a lot of those guys”.
Last year’s starter alongside Bush was Mark Barron, who was given fairly regular rest days. Williams also missed a couple of games, so there were no doubt at least some opportunities over the course of the first half of his rookie season in which Gilbert got the chance to get some high-quality reps in practice. Now he may be playing with those guys in a game.
“Just coming into year two, knowing a lot of the same guys right next to you and behind you, it just makes it way easier to just continue to build chemistry, and continue to know the guys around you and continue to grow those relationships”, he said.
Outside of Williams, the Steelers’ linebacking unit is totally different from the 2018 season. Both Bush and Gilbert were drafted last season, the former in the first round, and Spillane was a first-year player signed to a futures contract. He ultimately made the practice squad out of training camp before getting promoted thanks to Gilbert’s injury.
Now those three along with Williams make up the team’s projected inside linebacker depth chart for 2020. The only other inside linebacker that is even on the 80-man roster is Leo Lewis, a college free agent rookie. So whether he’s comfortable or not, Gilbert doesn’t have much choice. He has to be ready.