The interest and overall connection between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Wisconsin linebacker Nick Herbig couldn’t have been more obvious, from the bloodlines with older brother, Nate, a Steelers free agent signee this offseason, to the feeder program that Wisconsin has become for the organization.
What wasn’t obvious leading up to the Steelers’ fourth-round selection of Herbig at No. 132 overall was what position he would play in the NFL.
At least initially, the Steelers say he’s going to be an outside linebacker. Throughout the pre-draft process, the belief was that Herbig would kick inside to be an off-ball defender at the next level due to his shorter stature and short arms relative to prototypical edge defenders. The Steelers don’t seem to be concerned about that.
They should be.
Viewing Herbig as an outside linebacker to start his career in the Black and Gold is a mistake by the franchise, and it’s setting Herbig up for failure.
Sure, he was a talented edge rusher in college at Wisconsin, racking up 36 tackles for loss and 21.0 career sacks, including 11.0 sacks as a senior in 2022. His tape shows the ability to dip and bend around the corner, and he really get after the quarterback with a relentless motor. But it’s hard to overlook the arm-length issues.
At the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, Herbig checked in with 31 1/4″ arms, though he did put on 12 pounds following the 2022 season to get up to 240 pounds at the Combine.
Still, his measurements have him on the small side for the position. According to mockdraftable.com, Herbig is in the 54th percentile for weight, 68th percentile for height, 18th percentile for arm length and 21st percentile for hand size.
Current Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith both came in with good size and were in the top percentile for height, weight and arm length for the position. Things have worked out for those two quite well.
With Herbig, it’s a major projection at the outside linebacker position due to his arm length. Though Herbig’s height and weight aren’t immediately disqualifying to play on the edge in the NFL, a lack of length and overall body type is more concerning, especially for the Steelers.
Herbig has a thinner frame and poor length for the position to face offensive tackles with 33+-inch arms. Smaller outside linebackers, like Malik Reed last season (6012, 234, 31 1/4 inch arms), have struggled in Pittsburgh’s system. That lack of length makes it harder to win off the edge as a pass rusher against the longer, more athletic tackles Herbig will face in the NFL, and makes it all the more difficult to consistently set the edge in the run game.
Herbig is much closer to a Sutton Smith-type than profiling as a Watt- or Highsmith-type on the edge.
That’s extremely concerning.
Smith checked in at 6003, 233 pounds with 30 3/4″ arms and 9″ hands. Again, very similar measurables for Herbig. Like Herbig, Smith was a dominant force off the edge in college, racking up 58.5 tackles for loss and 30.0 sacks in three seasons at Northern Illinois and eventually becoming a sixth-round pick for the Steelers in 2019.
Of course, Smith flamed out quickly as a pass rusher, leading to the Steelers cutting him and Smith ultimately switching positions to fullback, landing with the Las Vegas Raiders for eight games last season.
I am not saying Herbig = Smith, but there should be real concern there.
For Herbig to have a chance to succeed defensively in the NFL, he should move to off-ball linebacker, a position he dabbled in at times last season as Wisconsin moved him around. He’s a tough, smart football player who has a motor that runs hot constantly. He can still be that versatile situational pass rusher, but long-term his best bet is moving off-ball as a linebacker.
He’s going to succeed in the NFL initially on special teams, as he’s perfectly built for that type of role, but counting on him as the third or fourth outside linebacker behind Watt and Highsmith is a major mistake by the Steelers.
And is setting the young defender up for failure.