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Labriola On

Excitement surrounds 'additions' at ILB

If there was such a thing as a written job description for a Steelers inside linebacker, Aaron Curry has an idea of how it should read.

"I'd say you gotta be enthusiastic, tough, violent, and play smart."

Of course, the NFL doesn't work the same way as so many other occupations, where employers rely on specific, written parameters when looking to fill a job opening. Even if having such a guidebook might have come in handy during a 2023 season that had the Steelers lose two of their top three inside linebackers to season-ending injuries in back-to-back November games, there still would have had to be candidates with those qualifications.

Losing Cole Holcomb on Nov. 2 and then Kwon Alexander on Nov. 12 sent the Steelers scrambling for players at a critical position at a time in the NFL calendar when the replacement options aren't exactly plentiful. And so the Steelers were left with signing candidates off the street, off the couch, off other teams' practice squads as they fought back from a three-game losing streak to cobble together a season-ending three-game winning streak to claim the AFC's seventh seed and a spot in the playoffs.

So when the 2024 offseason came around, the Steelers set out to try to avoid a similar situation for Curry and his group should attrition set in at inside linebacker this season. The first move was signing unrestricted free agent Patrick Queen, a soon-to-be 25-year-old all situations linebacker who is coming off a Pro Bowl season, and then they supplemented that by spending their second pick in the third round (98th overall) on North Carolina State's Payton Wilson.

While the addition of Queen deserves consideration as the crown jewel move of the whole offseason, as Mandatory Minicamp ended on June 13 there also was a decent buzz attached to the addition of Wilson and the progress Holcomb has made in his rehabilitation from his knee injury.

"He's built for this environment. This environment is built for him," said Curry about Queen during minicamp. "He's a good leader, leads by example. He knows a lot of football. (My reaction to his signing) was excitement to be able to coach a player of his caliber. And then I also understand that there comes a huge responsibility that when a guy has played that well as long as he has, you have a responsibility to help him continue to grow his game. That's probably the coolest part of it."

Adding Wilson late in the third round of the recent draft also has Curry excited as the Steelers head into the five-week period leading up to the opening of training camp at Saint Vincent College.

"Pre-draft, my note on Payton was he was a football junkie. And he really is," said Curry. "In meetings he wants to be right. He takes constructive criticism properly. He wants all the answers. He's gonna study tape on his own. He's gonna come in with questions. He'll spend all day in the building if you let him. Just saying he's a football junkie, a high character football guy who loves his sport. So he's fun to coach."

Those two newcomers have been added to a group that also includes Elandon Roberts, who turned out to be a rock at the position during that tumultuous 2023 season, and Holcomb, who is being given high marks for the progress he has made during his rehabilitation.

Over the course of the three-day minicamp, Coach Mike Tomlin was asked to assess his inside linebackers.

About whether Holcomb is now on track to participate in on-field workouts once camp opens, Tomlin said, "Oh, I'm sure he is. I don't have a lot of details about the specifics of it, but at every checkpoint, I think the experts are comfortable with his progress. And I know he's working extremely hard."

About Roberts, Tomlin said, "He's a pro. He's smart. He's a good teammate. He loves football. He likes to talk about it, he's a good communicator. And it's just good to have those skills, particularly at that position."

And of course, there is this about Queen: "You get a guy like Queen, and it doesn't matter about the other components of the equation. He's just a good well-rounded football player, and he showed that here in a football-like environment. Can't wait to get him to Latrobe."