Want = a position the team could improve with a good draft pick.
Important Want = should improve rather than could.
Need = a missing starter.
This series looks at each position to evaluate the level of want and some of the prospects who might be available in those early rounds.
- Offensive Wants, Needs and Prospects: Offensive Tackle (as of January 12), Center (January 15), Guard (January 19), Running Back (January 16), Tight End (January 21), Quarterback (January 26), WR Types (January 30), and WR Prospects (February 1).
- Defensive Wants, Needs and Prospects: Defensive Tackle (as of February 9), Corner (February 11), and Edge Rusher (February 15)
Cards on the table: I am an ILB junkie. Right or wrong, I believe in building ‘my’ teams from the center out. The QB and the OL is all important on that side of the team, with TE’s getting equal priority to WR’s. On defense it is the front 7, as captained by the ILB’s.
Do I need to say how happy I was to see the Steelers trade up for Devin Bush just a year after addressing the deeper midfield with Terrell Edmunds? I gloated, my friends, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. But I am required to admit up front that my evaluation of the current ILB situation may be a little biased. Here it is.
The Steelers have a quality ILB unit between Devin Bush at Mack ILB and a sub package group at Buck ILB/Nickel CB/Big Nickel Safety. It works. But for all of that, a pair of star ILB’s who would both be 3-down players could take this defense to the next level. That one extra piece would allow Pittsburgh to shift seamlessly from a 3-4 base to a 4-2-5 Nickel package even in mid-play, causing endless frustration for QB’s who try to audible into a particular mismatch, and Keith Butler would chortle with glee at the unpredictable blitz packages. And on top of that, the extra starter-quality ILB would protect against that “one key injury” problem we saw this year when Devin Bush went down.
I humbly submit that adding a second genuine star at ILB would matter so long as both he and Bush could play a full starter’s ration of snaps, without getting schemed off the field by opposing offensive coordinators.
As always, let’s start by examining the current roster before moving on to the prospects and a next level discussion.
MACK ILB’S ON THE ROSTER
- Devin Bush (5’11”, 234 lbs.) is the real thing. Fast as hell and smarter than the proverbial whip, he is a perfect model of the modern Mack ILB outside of the limited inches. Stardom looms. Tee, hee, and bloody hee again. He will be back to form in 2021 and better than ever, since he’s no doubt spending the same unending amounts of time studying film – because that’s just what he does. Before Bush got hurt Pittsburgh played a lot more 3-4 formations, relying on his athletic versatility and Vince Williams’ blitzing prowess to counter offensive play calls aimed at finding the mismatch. The defense suffered a lot when he went down.
- Ulysses Gilbert (6’0”, 230 lbs.) went into 2020 as the designated backup for Devin Bush; a hyperathletic prospect who only needed to take that next learning step into being a true professional able to handle an NFL workload. He went on IR instead, which made the loss of Devin Bush that much more painful. We haven’t discussed it that much, but the Steelers lost 2019 by being forced to start the #3 or #4 QB, and in 2020 we’ve been starting a #3 or #4 at the position known as the QB of the defense. He is under contract on a rookie deal until 2023 and is the real reason why Mack ILB probably is off the table. Still unproven – don’t forget that – and maybe injury prone, but very promising and very affordable.
- Robert Spillane (6’1”, 229 lbs.) was one of the pleasant surprises we saw in 2020. The third year journeyman ‘got it’, was able to step in as the #3 Mack, and looked solid enough to cause even more angst and hair tearing when he too got injured. Yes, he is a 2021 free agent, but one suspects that a moderately priced 2-year deal will be enough to keep him on the team.
- Marcus Allen (6’2”, listed at 215 but he’s probably added weight) is a newly converted hybrid LB/SS who’s also made a lot of bones as a special teams ace. A valuable ‘glue guy’, he’s coming off his rookie deal and will be yet another 2021 free agent. Useful as a sub package ILB but far too small to swap in as a Buck ILB, and thus his snap count will be limited no matter what. We’ll see. He and Spillane are going to be offered similar deals and one of the two is probably going to cement the team’s Mack ILB depth moving forward.
- Tegray Scales (6’0”, 227 lbs.) was a 2018 UDFA for the Rams who’s wandered the league and is now signed with the Steelers for the 2021 season. He was described in that year’s Big Board as a high IQ prospect lacking only the pure speed to excel as a Mack, and the pure size to excel as a Buck. A developmental prospect with limited upside.
BUCK/COMBO ILB’S ON THE ROSTER
- Vince Williams (6’1”, listed at 233 lbs. but reportedly closer to 250). God bless him, for this is a Steeler. Yes, he has his physical limitations. You do not want him trailing the likes of Eric Ebron or a prime Lev Bell in the open field. He makes up for those physical limitations with a tremendous football IQ that gives him a quicker first step, with his ability to blitz, by doing the dirty work on the inside against heavy run formations, and as a key team leader. VW may never be an all-star, but he’ll always be a Steeler. He is also younger than people think (only 32 as of next December), and under contract through next year (free agent in 2022). He will earn $4 Million in 2021, which could be saved if the team is forced to painful cuts, plus a dead cap hit of $3 Million for amounts he was already paid in prior years.
- Avery Williamson (6’1”, 246 lbs.) was obtained from the Jets on a one year deal after Devin Bush got hurt and is an almost perfect ILB3 who can step in for either Bush or Williams with a clear but moderate step down in either case. He is 28 years old and in the prime of his career. His 2020 salary was only $2.75 Million, but only because the Jets absorbed a $5 Million dead money cap hit as part of the trade. The relief he felt at playing for a team like Pittsburgh will no doubt play heavily into his calculations as a 2021 free agent, but the market is likely to offer him a lot more cash than Pittsburgh can afford to pay. market. Fingers crossed until they ache, but with limited hope.
You know what? After going down that list one can only be reassured. The Steelers have zero room at ILB for depth or developmental prospects, with the possible exception of a late Day 3 Buck ILB like Matakevich who’d excel on special teams. And not even that if they can somehow manage to resign Avery Williamson.
But as noted above there is a lot of room for a star Buck ILB who’d be a true, 3-down partner for Devin Bush. Zero “need”, but definitely some room. It is hard to think of any other spot where a new player could make this defense materially better from down to down.
- ILB Micah Parsons, Penn St. (Junior). 6’2”, 245 lbs. The dream running mate for Devin Bush, but it Ain’t Gonna Happen. Or at least it wouldn’t in any normal year. It becomes theoretically possible with Penn State playing so few games due to Covid. ROUND 1 GRADE
- ILB Zaven Collins, Tulsa (RS Junior). 6’4”, 260 lbs. ILB Zaven Collins, Tulsa (RS Junior). 6’4”, 260 lbs. The comparisons vary between Anthony Barr, Leighton Vander-Esch, and a young Brian Urlacher. If that doesn’t sell you, nothing ever will. Collins was built by heaven to be one of the best 3-4 Buck ILB prospects for any draft, any time; a 260-pounder missile with startling burst, who moves like a 230-pound coverage player in open space. He also has very good bend, and can double as a legitimate Edge Rusher. Pittsburgh has a better roster of linebackers than most teams, and it is a strength compared to other many other parts of the team, but come on. Can we really pass that up? Josh Carney’s gif-supported January scouting report lists the small school experience as just about the only question mark. The PFN January scouting profile adds long speed as a potential issue, suggesting that he may time around 4.70. This gif-supported early February scouting report also worries about whether he has the makeup speed to recover after falling for a play action fake. Both suggest that he might be asked to drop some weight in order to gain some extra speed. This late January scouting profile digs down to what might be bigger negatives: “Rumors around campus describe Collins as having a terrible personality: no one likes him.” That translates to a locker room problem off the field, and maybe on the field in the form of lackadaisical effort and pursuit when the play isn’t nearby. This late January scouting profile from a Patriots POV ends with a solid Top 20 grade. Here is a nice gif-supported scouting report from early February. ROUND 1 GRADE WITH ASTERISK
- ILB Nick Bolton, Missouri (Junior). 6’0”, 232 lbs. A big hitter in the Vince Williams mold, with more athletic talent for playing out in space, and a dozen fewer pounds for taking the beating inside. (Williams is listed at 233 but numerous sources have said he plays at 245). Could Bolton add that weight and still maintain his mobility? That’s pretty much the only question. Like Williams, he excels as both a blitzer and a run stuffer/destroyer, and will definitely be an energy bringer to any defense that picks him up. Also brings a very high floor as a special teamer. Josh Carney’s gif-supported February scouting report ends in a Round 2 grade based on doubts about his actual size, length, and ability to be a true coverage linebacker. This solid, Giants-oriented scouting profile likes him too, but worries about his erratic tackling form and coverage skills (good in zone, too stiff for man). This gif-supported February scouting report from S.I. praises his physicality and likes the tackling skills, but worries about his overall range. This January scouting profile found a consistent theme: “he is hot or cold when it comes to each trait.” ROUND 2 GRADE
- ILB Baron Browning, Ohio St. (Senior). 6’3⅛”, 241 lbs. with 33” arms and 10” hands. A superior athlete even for Ohio State, Browning offers great size, speed, and upside. He is the very definition of “toolsy;” enough so that his extra gear showed out even among the Senior Bowl competition. Jim Nagy, the former scout who runs that operation, called him “the highest ceiling Linebacker in the draft.” He also showed real improvement in his football IQ and consistency in the short 2020 season compared to 2019, with more than competent play as a sideline to sideline run stuffer, pass defender, and blitzer. He and Devin Bush would combine to give the Steelers a very special asset that could dominate the midfield for many years to come. The January scouting profile from PFN sees a Round 2-3 prospect with the athletic potential to be a genuine star in any kind of defense. This January scouting profile is even more encouraging, ending with a mid-2nd grade and a comparison to Myles Jack. Ditto for this Giants-oriented scouting profile: strong Day 2 grade for any kind of defense. ROUND 2 GRADE
- ILB/SS Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame (RS Junior). 6’2”, 216 lbs. A mid-1st prospect on other boards, JOK exemplifies the modern hybrid SS/ILB who can do both jobs at an acceptable level. He’s discounted here because Pittsburgh has less need for that player than other teams. It Ain’t Gonna Happen anyway. He’s too good. MID-1ST GRADE MOST PLACES, ROUND 2 GRADE FOR PITTSBURGH
- ILB Dylan Moses, Alabama (Senior). 6’3”, 240 lbs. Here’s the lead on basically every scouting report you’ll see: “Dylan Moses is a freak athlete.” He has every talent you look for: size, speed, fluidity, etc. The physical potential is basically unlimited. And it’s been that way since he made the cover of ESPN’s magazine in 8th grade after receiving scholarship offers from both LSU and Alabama. The issues come down to the flip side of that coin. What would that do to you? Especially with a father who raised you for the gridiron like some colossal stage mom? Those question marks – and they are only that, questions – pervade the discussion. Does he love the game enough for itself? Will he strike out when he becomes his own man? Will he retire young, or fight through injuries hard enough? Does he have enough fear to drive him on? Everyone seems to have an internal plotline even though no outsider can really know, and thus interviews are going to drive his stock more than film. Yes, he had a bad ACL tear that cost him 2019. Yes, he went into 2020 with Top 10 expectations, and failed to meet them. Yes, that may have been the injury… or was it [fill in your plot point]? James Wilford’s gif-supported February scouting profile, notes some slower processing time and what might be occasional failures to pursue 110% of the time. Which in due course leads to questions about the “why”. Daniel Jeremiah has compared him to Myles Jack, as the sort of limitless athlete who needs to grow into his powers, but will need some guidance in doing so. This January scouting profile from PFN has good background. ROUND 2 GRADE WITH ASTERISK
- ILB Cameron McGrone, Michigan (RS Sophomore). 6’1”, 235 lbs. Will be not-quite-21 on draft day. The successor to Devin Bush, and darned near as promising with a very similar skill set. Just a bit wider, and a lot more raw at this point in his career. Extraordinary ceiling; floor would be a pair of redshirt years before he ‘gets it.’ Tom Mead’s gif-supported February scouting report ends with a Round 4 grade based on the amount of mental work he will need to do in order to get his game up to basic professional standards. He already functions well in coverage, and he tackles fine, but there are far too many cases where he “takes the cheese” on play action and misdirection plays, and also too many delays before he recognizes where he is supposed to go on any given play. His 2020 season was hampered by various injuries. Known as a strong team leader. This 4-part January scouting profile agrees; a great athlete who was hampered by injuries in 2020, and needs study time and coaching to learn the pro game. This January scouting profile worries more about his issues with getting off blocks. ROUND 3-4 GRADE
- ILB Jabril Cox, LSU (RS Senior). 6’2⅞”, 233 lbs. Will turn 23 just before the draft. LSU by way of North Dakota State, he went to the SEC to prove his chops against elite competition – and did, even in one of LSU’s rare down years. A converted H.S. quarterback and multisport athlete, Cox dominated his FCS games completely. See this good late january scouting profile from PFN. His instant acceleration burst is just that special, and makes him a ferocious blitzer and shadow guy against running QB’s. Tom Mead’s gif-supported scouting report from late January describes Cox as basically a huge, cover-capable defensive back on passing downs, but complains that his run support skills are also closer to the Safety level than what is expected of an ILB. Scouting profiles have said that Alabama gave up throwing at him, but succeeded when they hit him with Najee Harris and power runs. ROUND 3-4 GRADE
- ILB Chazz Surratt, N. Car. (RS Senior). 6’1½”, 227 lbs. He’s earned a real discount for this Board because he measures like a Mack ILB who is too small to play Buck – a step I hate to take because this is the sort of prospect to get your draftnik juices going. He’d have a Round 2 grade in a heartbeat if he was 2” bigger with 20 extra pounds. Surratt was a good college Quarterback who couldn’t quite make it in that position, and therefore chose to move across the line to become a highly athletic QB for the defense. And did! It’s hard to oversell the value at ILB for that kind of drive, discipline, and football IQ. The biggest issues are age (24 on draft day) and the fact that the Steelers have a glut of Mack ILB talent in Bush, Spillane, Gilbert, and even Marcus Allen. Here is a wonderful NFL.com article from November to give you some insight into the young man as well as the player. Tom Mead’s gif-supported February scouting report ends with a Round 3 grade based on obvious starter potential that requires some significant learning, and may be limited to the Mack position. ROUND 2-3 GRADE ELSEWHERE, ROUND 3-4 GRADE FOR PITTSBURGH
- ILB Pete Werner, Ohio St. (Senior). 6’2”, 240 lbs. An ILB who excels in run support and moving downhill on blitzes, but has a game that slowly weakens as he moves further away from the LOS. He really is an Ohio State level athlete; just one who leans more toward the bigger and thumper side than most of his peers. His coverage skills are very good in shallow zones, average to solid carrying someone downfield, and vulnerable when that RB or ILB has next level speed or shiftiness, but there is only so much you can expect from a Buck ILB. He will certainly start out as a special teams ace, but has clear 3-down-player potential if he can develop the pro-level recognition skills and coverage tricks that have let VW survive so long. Devin Jackson’s gif-supported February scouting report describes those learned instincts as the main reason for lowering Werner’s draft grade into the Round 3-4 range. This January PFN scouting profile agrees, describing Werner as a surprisingly good athlete for a run-first LB, who only needs get less vulnerable to QB tricks and misdirection plays. One of the few players that TE Pat Freiermuth could not block in the run game. ROUND 3-4 GRADE
- ILB Merlin Robertson, Ariz. St. (Junior). 6’3”, 251 lbs. A top notch athlete with all the size you want to play Buck ILB, combined with really good coverage skills and even some success as a pass rusher. There is a lot of boom potential, but he will need some good coaching to match the NFL ability with an NFL understanding of all that needs to be done. ROUND 4 GRADE
- ILB Charles Snowden, Virginia. (Senior). 6’6¼”, 232 lbs. with long 34” arms. Stop, go back, and read those measurements again. That’s the main part of the story here. He’s enormously long and uses it well in place of NFL-level strength. Time in the weight room could make him absurdly good at run support duties, but will extra mass combine with his height to cause COD problems against shiftier players? It gets into speculation. The bottom line is that we are talking the truest sort of boom or bust prospect, with “unique, field-tilting athlete” upside, and “square peg in a round hole” bust potential. It won’t help that he broke an ankle in late November and may be limited or unavailable for the full Combine/Pro Day workout. Here is a February scouting profile from a Chiefs POV. I recommend this combination article/interview/scouting profile from February as insight into his background and perspective. This good PFN scouting profile from late January catches the question marks well. This Senior Bowl article from an Eagles POV has brief profiles on three ILB’s, including Snowden. Here are a newspaper article/interview from January, and a more draftnick-oriented Senior Bowl interview. ROUND 4 GRADE
- ILB Jamin Davis, Kentucky. (RS Junior). 6’3”, 224 lbs. The modern hybrid LB who excels in coverage and plays well in run support because he ‘gets it’ despite his size limitations. Something of a one year wonder, and played in rotation even in 2020, but that was enough to show a pretty high floor at a position in high demand. Kentucky fans certainly mourned his loss. Discounted a bit on this board because the Steelers have more obvious use for a Buck ILB than a Mack, but his obvious special teams potential mitigates the positional analysis. Here is a Giants-oriented scouting profile from mid-February that worries about how much more he needs to learn. ROUND 5 GRADE
- ILB Monty Rice, Georgia. (Senior). 6’¼”, 238 lbs. Another fine ILB prospect who has Buck ILB size, but profiles better as a Mack because he is on the shorter side, and has needed linemen to keep him clean for run support. Of course, getting off blocks is a learnable skill. Very good agility and nice burst. This Senior Bowl article from an Eagles POV has brief profiles on three ILB’s, including Rice. This January scouting profile describes him as, “the emotional and vocal leader of the team,” and lauds how he grew into being a true 3-down ILB after being used as a pure run-stuffer in 2019. The 2020 film shows coverage ability as a positive asset. ROUND 5 GRADE
- ILB Paddy Fisher, Northwestern. (RS Senior). 6’3½”, 239 lbs. Will be 23 on draft day. An old fashioned, throwback linebacker in the same vein as Tyler Matakevich, except bigger, thumpier, and more physical. He was the heart, soul, and tone setter of what may have been the best defense in 2020 college football. The purest sort of hard working football player, Fisher made big plays and TFL’s a trademark in college, but many (not all) pundits believe he lacks the pure athleticism to handle shifty NFL athletes in space. That limitation may end up ruling his NFL career just as it did for Matakevich. In a normal year his stock would have almost certainly gone up or down in response to Combine athletic testing. Now? Who knows. This Senior Bowl article from an Eagles POV has brief profiles on three ILB’s, including Fisher. ROUND 5-6 GRADE
- ILB Derrick Barnes, Purdue. (Senior). 6’½”, 245 lbs. Honestly makes you think of a younger Vince Williams due to the combination of violent physical play, blitzing ability, attitude, and physical limitations that will show up against NFL athletes who achieve a matchup in open space. Showed well in the Senior Bowl, especially in pass rush drills. ROUND 6 GRADE
- ILB Tony Fields II, W. Va. (Senior). 6’1”, 222 lbs. A genuine football player, and thus a guy you root for hard, but where would he fit on the Steelers roster? Size and length really do matter, and his lack of either is already an issue in college. Opponents who can get a blocker on him can pretty much remove him from the play. If he succeeds it will be as a Mack, not a Buck, and there’s just no room in the room. OTOH, he projects as a fantastic special teams ace, so there is a decent floor to consider. Josh Carney’s gif-supported February scouting report ends with a Round 5ish grade based on the lack of size and the need for a few redshirt years to learn the game. ROUND 6 GRADE FOR PITTSBURGH
- ILB Amen Obgungbemiga, Okla. St. (RS Senior). 6’1”, 235 lbs. A solid, all-around Linebacker who is solid in both run support and coverage. But does he have that special talent to be more than a backup? This old article from 2015 provides fantastic depth on his background as an immigrant from Nigeria to Texas, and then up to Canada while still a boy. ROUND 6 GRADE
- ILB Tuf Borland, Ohio State. (RS Senior). 6’1”, 229 lbs. A Day 3 pick with a potentially sneaky upside to go along with the all-star name. The film is just okay, which adds up to “not good” when you factor in the marginal size. But he was also a 3-year captain chosen to make Ohio State’s coin toss pick in the BCS championship game; he played through significant injuries for a lot of his college career, including a not-fully-recovered Achilles in 2018; and he’s consistently been the ILB3 behind high end NFL talent. 100% a “play through the echo of the whistle” type of guy. Here is a December scouting profile from PFN. ROUND 6-7 GRADE
- ILB Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin. (Junior). 6’1”, 232 lbs. A smart, strong, impact ILB who may end up being an undersized 2-down player. There’s nothing wrong with his athleticism, it’s just open to question when you imagine the sort of special mismatch players and isolation schemes that NFL opponents will often bring to bear. ROUND 6-UDFA GRADE
- ILB Garret Wallow, TCU. (Senior). 6’2”, 230 lbs. A former Safety who matured into being an undersized ILB, Wallow brings a lot of range, attitude, and ferocity to the run support game, but lacks the size to be a pure Buck ILB like Vince Williams, and the versatility to be a true Mack ILB like Devin Bush. He will no doubt excel on special teams. Imagine a more Linebacker-ish Marcus Allen if you are desperate for a comp. ROUND 6-UDFA GRADE
- ILB Dimitri Moore, Vanderbilt. (RS Junior). 6’3”, 225 lbs. A quick, easy summary: Moore is a pure Mack ILB with average athleticism. Those are valuable athletes that can help every team in lots of small ways, but the Steelers rely on really special athleticism for the Mack position, and that devalues his prospects for this particular team. ROUND 7-UDFA GRADE
- ILB/EDGE Patrick Johnson, Tulane. (Senior). 6’3”, 255 lbs. A really intriguing prospect to watch as the process moves forward, because he profiles on paper as both an Edge Rusher and an OLB; and that is not just projection, because his college team used him in exactly that kind of hybrid role. That versatility earns him a higher grade on this board than you’ll see with others. Could he really be that elusive “higher end Vince Williams,” with the really nice bonus of having the burst and bend to turn the corner? He’s reported to have a Vincenzo-level motor that never stops, which is always a big plus. Scores a full 100 for scheme fit, but could also end up being a jack of two trades and master of none. This gif-loaded January scouting report from a Raiders POV looks at Johnson as a pure Edge talent, admiring his speed, speed-to-power pop, and chances of getting better when he adds some moves. ROUND 4 GRADE FOR PITTSBURGH
There’s a bottom line to all this when you break things down this way. Micah Parsons, and maybe Zaven Collins, are the only prospects who project as potential Devin-level stars a team could build its defense around. But it does offer good depth, with good value that may be available for every stop where Pittsburgh will have a pick. My personal bet would be on either (A) that special, 3-down, Buck-capable ILB in the Round 2-3 range who could take the defense to a new level, or (B) a Day 3 prospect in the Matakevich mold, who would add both depth and special teams prowess. But I have been wrong before.
The mid-draft wild card is that last name, Patrick Johnson. His stock seems to be wildly erratic at this point, ranging from Round 4 to UDFA depending on who you ask and what role they foresee. And maybe the boom-or-bust prospects like Werner, Robertson, and Snowden. They all have the potential to be that 3-down star, offset by longer odds of getting there than you and I might prefer.
All of this assumes that Vince Williams will be back, and that Avery Williamson will depart in free agency. Change one of those gears and we’ll have to go back and do this all over again.