“Predicting the 53” is a series we will continue throughout the off-season where we predict which 53 players will make up the Pittsburgh Steelers final roster. This post will focus on the Steelers linebackers, a group that is full of talent at the top but is lacking in depth. There isn’t a storyline to follow with this group. The only real change from last year is that Mark Barron was cut and the team will need to replace his 750 snaps. Other than that, the only personnel changes from last year will be depth pieces.
Predicting the 53: 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers Linebackers
At the top of this group, the Steelers linebackers are set. T.J. Watt was one of the best defensive players in the NFL last year. He finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting, but there absolutely was a case that he deserved to win it. Watt does it all as an edge player. He can win on the edge with strength, speed, and athleticism. Last year, he was a turnover machine, forcing the most fumbles in the league and always being around the football. He registered pressure on roughly one in every six dropbacks by opposing quarterbacks, an elite number. Watt will probably get written a blank check by the Steelers when his rookie deal is up, and deservedly so. They would be silly not to make him a Steeler for life.
Though he couldn’t keep up with Watt, Bud Dupree finally developed into a very good player last year. Many fans scoffed when the team picked up his fifth year option, and rightfully so. But the investment paid off big time and now the team has to deal with the dilemma of signing Dupree long term. For now, he is signed to the franchise tag. Last year, he totaled 11.5 sacks, 17 QB hits, and forced four fumbles while playing 91% of defensive snaps. With another big year, Dupree will earn himself the long term deal he wants, whether it’s in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.
Beyond these two studs, there are some question marks. Third round draft pick Alex Highsmith will be the number three outside linebacker and the first backup on each side. Without ever playing a snap in the NFL, there is confidence in that statement. Highsmith is a very promising prospect and will enter the season with high expectations as a rotational pass rusher and special teams player. Behind him, there will be Olasunkanmi Adeniyi and potentially Tuzar Skipper if the team keeps five edge players. Adeniyi got some snaps on defense last year, but mostly contributed on special teams. Skipper was released following a tremendous preseason and brought back during the season, but he didn’t play at all.
This is where the Steelers linebackers really start to show their depth problems. Barron wasn’t great last year, but he was better than he got credit for and still played a lot of snaps. Despite cutting a starter, the team didn’t make any moves to address this move in the off-season- no free agent signings or draft picks. Of course, Devin Bush will be the staple at this position. As long as he’s healthy, Bush will play every snap this year. He’s such a good athlete for the position, and his range combined with physicality already have him knocking on the door of the league’s top ten linebackers after just one season. Joining him will be Vince Williams, the fan favorite veteran who plays smash mouth, old school Steelers style football. Williams is dominant as a blitzer and against the run. He’s not the ideal linebacker to have on the field for obvious passing downs, though. The performance of the depth behind him will determine how much Williams will play. But expect him to be on the field at least 80% of the time.
The depth at the middle linebacker position is the biggest hole on the Steelers team. Second-year player Ulysees Gilbert is entering the season with high expectations, but it’s hard to tell if they are warranted. He showed great potential last year during the preseason, but many players have looked good in preseason and not panned out. Gilbert might be described as a poor man’s bush, with above average athleticism and range but spotty mental processing. If Williams isn’t able to play on passing downs, it will be Gilbert who takes his place. Robert Spillane will likely be the fourth Steelers linebacker, but don’t expect to see him much on defense. He’ll have a big role on special teams, though, where he’s expected to excel.
Outside linebackers: T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Alex Highsmith, Ola Adeniyi, Tuzar Skipper
Inside linebackers: Devin Bush, Vince Williams, Ulysees Gilbert, Robert Spillane- don’t be surprised to see the team make a move here in free agency for depth purposes
Miss the cut: John Houston, Leo Lewis, James Lockhart
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