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What’s A Bigger Need — Off Ball Linebacker Or Secondary?

As we sit here today at the beginning of 2021 Training Camp, the Pittsburgh Steelers have, in a way, “overhauled” their roster from what it looked like heading into the 2020 campaign. Gone are the names including Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro, Matt Feiler, Maurkice Pouncey, James Conner, Vance McDonald, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton who made up the core of the roster for several years, if not the better half of a decade for some of the names listed.

However, Pittsburgh has gone about addressing some of the needs of the players that are no longer with the team. They draft Najee Harris 24th overall in the 2021 NFL to address the loss of James Conner. They re-signed Zach Banner two a two-year deal to plug in at the RT spot in hopes of kicking Chuks Okorafor to try and take over Villanueva’s spot at LT.

They drafted Kendrick Green in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft and re-signed B.J. Finney to battle it out for Pouncey’s spot at center. Kevin Dotson figures to step into Feiler’s spot at LG with recent signee Trai Turner expected to man the void left by the release of DeCastro at RG. They drafted Pat Freiermuth in the second round at TE to replace McDonald and hopefully provide the team with a long-term solution to the TE position.

They recently brought in Melvin Ingram at EDGE to provide depth and rotate in with Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt to help for the loss of Dupree. They re-signed Robert Spillane and drafted Buddy Johnson to add to the off-ball linebacker position, having brought back Vince Williams after cutting him to save cap space, but Williams unexpectedly retired at the start of camp. They also re-signed Cam Sutton and brought in a bevy of UDFAs, along with UFA Arthur Maulet to compete in the secondary for the boundary and nickel spots at CB.

When going through the various position groups, you notice a couple of places the team still looks relatively weak. They addressed clear needs at RB, TE, and EDGE with capable players that can come in and contribute at a high level when compared to the players they are replacing. You feel less certain about the offensive line, but they have added a bunch of guys that have played well in the past or have promise to develop into quality options going forward, and the team seems content on who they have at the moment there. However, secondary and off-ball linebacker are two positions that still stick out to me as positions that the team could look to add a name.

Currently, the team lacks ideal depth at safety behind Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, having names like Antoine Brooks Jr., Miles Killebrew, Donovan Stiner, and potentially Arthur Maulet as the next guys up to play.

Maulet and Brooks Jr. are expected to battle it out for the nickel spot though, so the depth gets even more depleted if they both project to spend time there. Pittsburgh has shown their hand this offseason by bringing in FAs Karl Joseph and Malik Hooker for visits in attempt to add depth to a shallow depth chart behind the entrenched starters, but Joseph opted to go back to the Raiders and Hooker left town without a deal and is no expected to sign with the Cowboys barring any setbacks.

Names like Kenny Vaccaro, Tre Boston, Jeff Heath, and fan-favorite Jordan Dangerfield are still out there to be acquired likely on the cheap to provide depth in case of injury, and in the case of Boston, Vaccaro, and Heath, a starting-caliber player should Pittsburgh want to deploy three safeties.

While some may be higher on Robert Spillane than others, the team does lack proven production at the off-ball linebacker position with the recent retirement of Vince Williams. Buddy Johnson is an intriguing developmental player, but likely isn’t ready to be thrown into the fire Day One. Guys like Marcus Allen and UG3 can have roles on defense, but lack the upside and consistency, whether it be play or health-related, to be counted on for a full 17-game season. Thus, to continue to reinforce the defense as a strength of this team, adding another experienced player at ILB would be a move I would highly encourage.

The team could opt for a familiar face in Avery Williamson or choose comparable player like Tahir Whitehead, B.J. Goodson, or Nate Gerry as replacement level/spot starters that could be added for veteran minimum deals.

However, Pittsburgh could decide to spend up like they did with Ingram at EDGE and go after either K.J. Wright or Kwon Alexander, potentially creating a dynamic duo with Devin Bush in the middle of the defense and solidifying the front seven. Despite his age, Wright has been a highly productive player the last decade in Seattle, excelling in pass coverage for a man of his size while also being an instinctive run defender. Alexander is coming off of an Achilles tear, but has also shown glimpses of superior athleticism as a run-and-chase off-ball linebacker that would be fun to see next to Bush.

Personally, while safety depth may be a bigger need at the moment, if this team is set on competing for a run at the playoffs in 2021, I would be putting my chips on the table and try to sign someone like K.J. Wright to make the defensive front something to be feared by opposing offenses. A guy like Boston as a post safety would be another good fit to allow Fitzpatrick to move around more, but he has been available in the past and Pittsburgh has never shown interest. However, with a guy like Wright in the middle, Pittsburgh would get a player that compliments Devin Bush extremely well with the leadership and experience to make a big contribution as well as in the locker room for guys like Buddy Johnson who likely need a year before playing extensive snaps.

While an older player, his play hasn’t dropped off much over the past few seasons, showing the versatility to play both inside and outside in Seattle’s defensive system. The signing of Ingram shows that GM Kevin Colbert is willing to buck the trend of signing outside FAs over the age of 30 to add a superior talent at a position of need, and to me, Wright can do just that.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the Pittsburgh Steelers roster heading into the preseason? Do you think that the secondary or the off-ball linebacker position is a bigger area of need, and how would you go about addressing said need? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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