Have you ever watched a player have a great preseason, only to go on to have an unremarkable professional career? If you’re a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, you’ve seen this more than a few times in recent years, even if the jury is still out on some, with players like Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, Tuzar Skipper, Matthew Thomas, and Ulysees Gilbert III being among the most high-profile examples.
They’re all linebackers, a position at which perhaps it’s easier to flash in the preseason. That’s why head coach Mike Tomlin is scaling back his admiration for what he’s seen some of his young linebackers do up to this point, as he told reporters after Monday’s practice.
“I liked what I saw, but I temper my enthusiasm because it’s about who’s across from them and what stage of development are they in”, he said, referring to the young outside linebackers like Jamir Jones and Quincy Roche, each of whom had a sack last Thursday against the Dallas Cowboys.
“That’s something that we talk openly about to our guys”, he continued. “They’ve got to make good use of the reps being given and maybe they’ll be given an opportunity to ascend and compete against more seasoned, more experienced guys. That’s what the process is about”.
Roche was a sixth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft coming out of Miami, a transfer out of Temple. In spite of the fact that he was a late-round pick, he was widely labeled a draft steal, as many believe that he is more than capable of transcending his draft slot.
As for Jones, he originally came out of Notre Dame in 2020 as a college free agent, signing with the Houston Texans, but didn’t leave much of an imprint on the team. He worked out at his alma mater earlier this year during the school’s Pro Day, and the Steelers signed him to the 90-man roster then.
It’s not clear if there is room on the 53-man roster for even one of them, let alone both. The Steelers have T.J. Watt at the top of the food chain at outside linebacker, with second-year Alex Highsmith stepping into a starting role in Bud Dupree’s absence. They added veteran former Pro Bowl pass rusher Melvin Ingram as well, shortly before camp.
The number four spot at the position could be viewed as open, but veteran journeyman Cassius Marsh, who was on the team late last season and even played ahead of Adeniyi before he moved on in free agency this offseason, seems to have a firm grip on that for now.
The good news for the young guys is that there are still three more preseason games to get through to state their cases. The bad news is that what they do in the preseason isn’t reflective of what they would face in the regular season, which is what makes it more difficult to predict how young, unpedigreed players might translate.