The Pittsburgh Steelers have taken a couple of sizeable swings at the inside linebacker position over the course of the past decade with first-round selections in 2014 with Ryan Shazier and in 2019 with Devin Bush. Other than that, they have typically waited until Day 3 of the draft—sometimes in the final few rounds—to find depth.
It would be one thing if Shazier were still playing, of course, but he suffered a career-ending injury before Bush was even drafted, which is one of the reasons the Steelers targeted Bush so heavily in the first place. And now he enters his third season while rehabbing from a torn ACL.
As the presumed nucleus of the inside linebacker room, he has to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for the group’s performance. Flanking Bush are Vince Williams, Robert Spillane, rookie Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen, Ulysees Gilbert III, and Miles Killebrew, among others.
Still, for Pro Football Focus, it only amounts to the 13th-ranked inside linebacker group in the NFL heading into the 2021 season, coming in immediately behind the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears, though they do have the top-ranked group in the AFC North, the Baltimore Ravens being next at 19.
“The Steelers ask a lot of their inside linebackers, and because of that, we are waiting on Devin Bush to earn the kind of grades his talent suggests he should”, Sam Monson writes. “The best endorsement of his impact thus far has arguably come from what happens when he isn’t in the lineup. Vince Williams returns for 2021, but he is coming off a career-low 50.3 overall grade and has never been a plus player in coverage”.
That included a career-low run defense grade of 54.3, after posting a grade of nearly 70 in 2019. While he registered 38 ‘stops’ on the season, PFF also credits him with 15 missed tackles, by far his career high. He never missed more than nine before, in their charting.
It is unclear exactly what his role will be this season, however. Will he be a full-time starter? Rotate with Robert Spillane? Serve as the backup to Spillane? And how will the fourth-round pick, Johnson, fit into the mix?
There are too many variables in the offseason to get a clear picture of positional rankings, or really much else. Nevertheless, we still write about them because we never stop being curious. We make projections based on what we feel we know, and then see in time how right or wrong we were.
Bush and company have the opportunity to show themselves to be a top 10 unit in the NFL this year if they maximize their potential. The former 10th overall pick is one of the most physically gifted linebackers you’ll find. Provided that he retains his athleticism as he comes back from his knee injury.