Robert Spillane is entering his first season in which he might really feel comfortable referring to himself as a veteran. A former undrafted free agent out of Western Michigan, he had a short stint with Tennessee as a rookie, and then played half a season’s worth of special teams duties with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019.
But he came in last year as Pittsburgh’s top backup inside linebacker and ultimately logged more than 400 snaps. Now he’s primed for a bigger role, and perhaps a starting role, and he’s ready to start passing on the wisdom he’s gained to others, with 2021 fourth-round rookie Buddy Johnson being his first pupil.
“How fast as a vet can I get Buddy to be ready to go if something happens to me?”, he said to reporters earlier today after practice. “My job at the end of the day is to be the best player I can be, but also to be the best teammate, to the young guys especially. Guys like Buddy who are hungry to learn the defense, hungry to be the best player they could be. All I could do as a vet is give him the keys to the test, give him all the knowledge that other vets have given me when I was young”.
Selected out of Texas A&M, Johnson comes to the Steelers with over 200 tackles at the collegiate level under his belt, playing in the SEC. 85 came during his senior season in 2020, along with four sacks, a pick six, and a couple of forced fumbles.
He is the first linebacker the team has drafted since Spillane has been on the team, more or less coming in together with Devin Bush and Ulysees Gilbert III as rookies in 2019. He himself was green at the time, and he understands the importance of the veterans sharing their insights with the new faces.
“This time is a great time for vets to get with young guys and to help try to bring them up to speed”, he said. “This happens every year in the NFL with the new group of guys, whether it be drafted or undrafted guys, free agents. You’re always going to be incorporating new guys into your room every year”.
The Steelers have a strong top three at the position with Bush, Vince Williams, and Spillane himself, but there is a mélange of options behind them, from the oft-injured Gilbert, to former safety Marcus Allen, and now Johnson, the highest-pedigreed of the reserves.
At least from that perspective, the rookie stands the best chance of eventually inheriting a starting job in this defense, which is the reason that the Steelers drafted him in the first place. Even if it ultimately comes at his own expense down the road—or he could simply sign as a starter elsewhere in a year or two—Spillane knows it’s his task to do what he can to bring Johnson, and the other young guys, along as the veterans before him did.