2023 NFL Draft

Heitritter: With Numerous Options In Free Agency, Steelers Should Punt On Inside Linebacker In The Draft

The 2023 NFL Combine has come and gone, and now with the Pro Day circuit in full swing, we are just 50 days away from the start of the 2023 NFL Draft.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have several holes on the roster that need to be addressed prior to the team reporting to Latrobe for training camp with one of those needs being inside linebacker. ILBs Devin Bush, Marcus Allen, and Robert Spillane are currently scheduled to hit free agency with the general consensus being that Bush will walk and that the team will sign back one or both of Allen or Spillane.

Still, Marcus Allen is mainly a special teamer as a converted safety and Spillane, while reliable, lacks upside at the position and has often been a coverage liability when asked to play heavy snaps. The team does have Myles Jack coming into the second year of his deal, but his name has been floated around as a potential cap casualty to free up space after a disappointing 2022 season. Mark Robinson showed flashes at times as a rookie, but still has a long way to go before he can be considered a three-down linebacker after converting from running back to linebacker just a couple of seasons ago.

Given the uncertainty and lack of splash in the room, Pittsburgh would be wise to upgrade the position this offseason. The draft class has several notable names including Clemson’s Trenton Simpson and Arkansas’ Drew Sanders who are more hybrid players that project as ILBs in the NFL but played all over the field in college. Jack Campbell from Iowa is more of that rugged, traditional off-ball linebacker that plays well against the run and has the instincts to play well in zone coverage. Guys like Noah Sewell and Ivan Pace Jr. project mainly as run stuffers that may struggle a bit in coverage while Henry To’oTo’o and Daiyan Henley are more coverage linebackers that aren’t the most reliable in support in terms of fighting off blocks.

While Pittsburgh needs to add talent and youth to the ILB room, they would be wise to address the position in free agency and potentially punt on drafting an ILB altogether in the draft. This would follow the trend in the past of Pittsburgh waiting till the seventh-round last year to take Robinson rather than one of the top names available or opting to take S Terrell Edmunds in the first-round back int 2018 and opting to go cheap and sign Matthew Thomas as an UDFA rather than taking a shot on Darius Leonard, Fred Warner, or Jerome Baker in that draft class.

However, this linebacker class isn’t comparable to that loaded 2018 class or recent classes with the top guys being more tweener players that are projections at off-ball linebacker. Plenty of media and NFL personnel at the Combine spoke about the weakness of this ILB class and how we may see some of the top names in this class fall down the board.

In comparison, the ILB free agent class is loaded from top to bottom with names that could instantly start or fill a major role for Pittsburgh at off-ball linebacker. People have been clamoring for Tremaine Edmunds this offseason to reunite with his brother in Pittsburgh (Terrell is a free agent too, by the way) while Bobby Wagner and Eric Kendricks are seasoned vets that just got cut by their respective teams in attempt to save cap space. Lavonte David is another grizzled veteran that has been among the top at the position for a decade along with Anthony Barr and Denzel Perryman who are scheduled to hit the free agent market.

Should Pittsburgh want to avoid defenders over the age 30 mark like they have in the past, Deion Jones, Zach Cunningham, and Anthony Walker Jr. are all still in their 20s and have extensive starting experience. Pittsburgh showed interest in Leighton Vander Esch and Rashaan Evans in the first round back in 2018, but neither made it to their selection. Both are on the open market and could be had for a fair price. Same goes for T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White for the Eagles who outplayed their previous draft stock for the NFC Champions this past season. David Long Jr., Germaine Pratt, Bobby Okereke, and Dre Tanquill, Azeez Al-Shaair, Elandon Roberts, Alex Anzalone, Kwon Alexander are all under 30 and are scheduled to hit the market as well.

Needless to say, the ILB FA market is heavily saturated, and while some of these names will be signed by their previous teams, a majority of them will hit the open market and likely keep the names in the middle and the bottom of the list from making more than $4-5 million annually.

This plays well for Pittsburgh who also needs to address CB, DL, OL, and other needs in the draft. While they could opt to take Simpson at #17 or Jack Campbell at #32, the relative cost of that pick to address another position like CB or DL compared to signing a starting ILB in free agency for cheap seems like a far more logical way to go about business with their cap space and draft picks.

While I am all for Pittsburgh taking a guy like Jack Campbell in the second round, perhaps the better idea would be to sign a quality starting option at ILB in free agency (potentially two if Myles Jack is indeed cut) and then see how the draft board falls to them. With this draft class stacked at EDGE, CB, TE, and possessing quality players along to OL in the middle rounds, it would be sad to see Pittsburgh pass on a superior prospect at another position because they feel like they need to draft and ILB, even if they aren’t a starting-caliber player.

Therefore, I would be all for Pittsburgh punting on the ILB class entirely in the draft, should they sign a capable starting option in free agency of which there is a plethora of options available. Sure, circumstances and the draft board may result in one of the ILBs being the top player on their board in the middle rounds, but with the talent and depth at other positions in this draft, I would personally prefer the selection of an ILB in the draft to be more of a luxury pick rather than a potential reach on need.

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