Entering the offseason and the pre-draft process, the Pittsburgh Steelers are shaping up to have a significant need at inside linebacker once again, just four years after trading into the top 10 to select Devin Bush out out Michigan.
Bush, in large part due to injury, didn’t quite work out in Pittsburgh, struggling in his return from injury in 2021 before putting together a decent season in 2022 after the Steelers declined to pick up his fifth-year option.
Along with Bush, names like Robert Spillane and Marcus Allen are free agents, which has the Steelers with just a few inside linebackers in Myles Jack, Mark Robinson, and Chappelle Russell as the lone names currently under contract at the position. Good news for the Steelers is the inside linebacker group in the 2023 NFL Draft appears rather strong.
Steelers scout and former defensive back Ike Taylor was in Mobile, Alabama this week for the 2023 Senior Bowl, as were Steelers Depot’s own Alex Kozora, Jonathan Heitritter, Tyler Wise and Ross McCorkle. For Taylor, two inside linebackers stood out throughout the week that really caught his attention, that being Cincinnati’s Ivan Pace Jr. and Jackson State’s Aubrey Miller Jr.
Appearing on the Bleav in Steelers podcast with co-host Mark Bergin, Taylor highlighted Pace Jr. and Miller Jr. for their work throughout the week in front of scouts, coaches and other front office personnel in Mobile.
“They had some inside linebackers that stuck out to me,” Taylor said to Bergin, according to audio via the Bleav in Steelers YouTube page. “Ivan Pace, Cincinnati; he stuck out to me. My young man from Jackson State [Miller Jr.], he was a dog. There was a few linebackers that I did like.”
Pace Jr. had a very strong week overall, flashing some impressive pass rushing abilities in one-on-one drills, consistently beating running backs and tight ends throughout the week.
Measuring in at 5102, 231 pounds, Pace is a bit smaller than the prototypical size for a linebacker, but he plays with a massive chip on his shoulder and was extremely productive in his collegiate career, which spanned three seasons at Miami (Oh.) before he transferred to Cincinnati for the 2022 season.
In his career, Pace Jr. finished with 306 tackles, 41.5 tackles for loss and 20.0 sacks, adding one interception, three forced fumbles and nine pass breakups during his collegiate career.
Throughout the week in Mobile, Pace flashed a high level pass rushing ability with great hand usage and surprising short-area burst, turning heads and making a name for himself, catching the eyes of Taylor.
Here’s what our own Jonathan Heitritter had to say about Pace Jr. in his draft profile of the Cincinnati product:
“Overall, Ivan Pace Jr. is an aggressive, gritty linebacker prospect that flies around the field. He has padded the stat sheet the last two seasons for the Redhawks and Bearcats, racking up tackles while showing his knack for getting after the passer. He processes well at the LOS and does a great job getting to the ball when unblocked or coming on a pass rush.”
Miller Jr., who was all over the place throughout the week, had a strong week as well. According to Steelers Depot’s Ross McCorkle, Miller filled the hole with force throughout the week and rarely lost a rep throughout the week. Miller checked in at 5115, 229 pounds and certainly looked like one of the better players throughout the week, which led to Taylor praising him in the podcast.
During his time at Jackson State, Miller Jr. recorded 174 total tackles, including 109 in 2021, quickly becoming a leader for the Jackson State program under former head coach Deion Sanders after transferring from Missouri. Miller Jr. was originally recruited to Missouri as an EDGE before sliding inside, following a similar path that former teammate James Houston — now an outside linebacker for the Detroit Lions — went on, sliding back and forth between pass rusher and off-ball linebacker in college before making the switch back to outside linebacker in the NFL.
Based on the comments from Taylor and the strong weeks that Pace Jr. and Miller Jr. had on the big stage that is the Senior Bowl, the Steelers likely have the two on their radar moving forward throughout the draft process.