Now that we’ve said goodbye to all of the prominent members of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster from a year ago, it’s time to introduce ourselves to the new blood. Many of them, of course, are draft picks, but the team also ended up picking up numerous players via free agency, the majority of whom we’ll likely be seeing in-season at some point.
Roster turnover is an inevitability in the NFL, but the 2021 season marked greater change than normal. Some of those adjustments will be accounted for internally, but it will also require the supplementing of a number of new components, which we’ll be reintroducing ourselves to over the course of this series.
After using their first four selections on the offensive side of the ball, the first area on defense the Steelers chose to address during the 2021 NFL Draft was the inside linebacker position. They used their second selection in the fourth round on Texas A&M product Buddy Johnson.
Initially, the Steelers released veteran starter Vince Williams in March in a cap-saving move, but later re-signed him on a veteran-minimum deal. They still drafted Johnson knowing that they had Williams in the fold at the time, before he surprised the team with his decision to retire on the eve of training camp earlier this month.
With Williams out of the picture, that leaves open the role of the top backup inside linebacker. Last year, that belonged to Robert Spillane to start the season, but now he will be the starter alongside Devin Bush. Johnson will be competing, I would imagine, primarily against Ulysees Gilbert III and Marcus Allen to serve as the first one off the bench.
Outside of Bush, Johnson is the highest-drafted inside linebacker for the Steelers since Ryan Shazier in 2014. Allen, for example, was originally a fifth-round pick (and originally a safety). Gilbert was a sixth-round pick.
But a fourth-round pick is kind of the borderline between getting a redshirt year no matter what and actually having to earn your place on the team. It’s very rare that anybody drafted in the first three rounds fails to make the roster, but becomes increasingly more common beginning in round four.
Even with Williams retired, Johnson is still in a bit of a crowded room, adding in the previously unmentioned Miles Killebrew (though he is listed on the depth chart with the safeties, but as a linebacker on the roster), as well as Tegray Scales, a former practice squad player who dressed for a couple of games last season.
I doubt that he is much at risk of not earning a spot on the team, but that doesn’t mean that he will be granted a free pass to get on the field. Chances are neither Bush nor Spillane will be coming off very often in the first place, whether Johnson can win the backup job against Gilbert and Allen or not.