It’s that time of year again. Free agency is creeping up in just a couple of weeks, so before we get there, we’ll get going over the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster, position by position, making an assessment of what kind of shape they’re in, trying to figure out how they might, or should, attack the roster on that basis.
The Steelers are likely to be subject to more change than they are used to this year, with more than a dozen players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, including numerous starters. Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement looms large over all discussions for the foreseeable future.
Position: Inside Linebacker
Total Positional Figure: 7
Devin Bush: Three years into his NFL career as a former 10th overall pick, it’s fair to say things haven’t gone according to plan for Devin Bush. After an encouraging rookie season, his second year was truncated following an ACL tear. He came back in 2021 with highly suspect play that resulted in reduced playing time by year’s end.
Joe Schobert: Acquired via trade at the 11th hour in August, Schobert did not look the part of a former Pro Bowler. Though he flashed in moments, his high salary makes him one of the most likely cap cuts league-wide.
Robert Spillane: A former special teams veteran, Spillane was poised to be promoted to the starting lineup last year before the Schobert trade. He still earned a role as their dime back, and due to performance and later health, he was still logging significant defensive snaps.
Marcus Allen: In his second season since converting to linebacker, the former safety established himself as a core special teams player. Late in the season, the team began using him on defense in select packages. He even had to start one game due to injury.
Ulysees Gilbert III: Like Allen, Gilbert established himself as a core special teams player last season. He logged 337 snaps there. But they also began exploring him as an option on defense late in the season, even playing in the playoffs.
Buddy Johnson: A fourth-round draft pick a year ago, Johnson could theoretically compete for the starting buck job this year. Though he spent a lot of time as a healthy scratch, he was on the cusp of competing for playing time when he began dealing with a foot injury that would end his season.
Tegray Scales: A former college free agent who has had multiple stints with the Steelers, Pittsburgh signed him off of the Bengals’ practice squad on January 1 due to a rash of availability issues at inside linebacker. He dressed for one game, but only played on special teams.
The Steelers need to be wide open to their options at inside linebacker, including making changes to their in-house options. As mentioned, Schobert is a prime candidate for release. At best, he is likely to be asked to restructure his contract to substantially lower his cap hit, if not directly to take a pay cut.
While Bush isn’t going anywhere if only for the fact that his salary is guaranteed anyway (and thus it would cost more due to displacement to release him than it would be to carry him), he will not be guaranteed a starting job, I think, by any means.
It wouldn’t be surprising if they explore the veteran free agency market, and a couple of significant names were just made available in Bobby Wagner and Jordan Hicks. They’ll also be looking in the draft, but they have so many needs that it may be difficult to be able to replace both starters.