The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t ignore the inside linebacker position during the 2021 NFL Draft, using a fourth-round pick (their first on a defensive player) on Buddy Johnson out of Texas A&M. But you don’t take a defender in the fourth round and expect him to be a plug-and-play starter, nor do you wait that long if you think you need one.
No, the Steelers waited because they already had Robert Spillane, whom they believe is capable of doing that. Even though they brought back Vince Williams, who has much more starting experience, it seems clear, for example, to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, who’s in charge.
“Spillane is the unquestioned starter next to Bush and took significant reps over four weeks — some of which were alongside the healing Bush”, he wrote recently. He also noted that very little was seen of Williams over the past four weeks, though that’s his prerogative, and that he’s a “just-in-case guy right now”.
This don’t come as a shock to many, if any of you, but it certainly seems as though the 2021 season is Spillane’s year. He figures to be the guy who plays upwards of 700 snaps, as long as he can stay healthy, and possibly even has a chance of securing a long-term role.
The former undrafted free agent out of Western Michigan is entering his third credited season this year, after which he will be a restricted free agent. He will be due to hit unrestricted free agency in 2023, so the Steelers have a couple of years to sort out where everybody stands.
Bush, of course, is the focal point of the inside linebacker group, but the team is also hoping that Johnson can develop, at least over the course of the next two years, into a player who is capable of doing the sorts of things asked of Williams and Spillane recently.
There is also the dark horse in Ulysees Gilbert III, a 2019 sixth-round pick who showed great during his rookie preseason, but has been hampered by a recurring back injury that has landed him on the Reserve/Injured List three times in just two seasons.
All of that, however, is a conversation for the future. This is Spillane’s opportunity, an opportunity that was never given to L.J. Fort, who is now doing fine for himself with the Baltimore Ravens, albeit in a limited rotational role.
Spillane started seven of 12 games in 2020 before suffering a knee injury that caused him to miss the final month of the regular season. He put up 45 tackles with four for loss, two sacks, three hits, a pick six, and four passes defensed during that time, logging 377 defensive snaps.