Offseason Program

Opportunity awaits

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Download the podcast here.

Training camp presents opportunity. For players all across the NFL, the time period presents players with opportunities to earn roster spots, playing time and starting jobs.

In this year's Steelers training camp, it's reasonable to expect that linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III will have opportunities.

Now entering his third season in the league, the 2019 sixth-round draft pick has shown flashes. A 6-foot, 230-pound hit-and-run linebacker, the former Akron star showed an ability to make plays at all three levels of the defense in college, finishing his career with 357 tackles, including 28.5 for losses, 8.5 sacks, three interceptions and eight pass defenses.

His 4.51-speed in the 40-yard dash at his pro day intrigued the Steelers as a player who could potentially line up next to – or at least behind -- 2019 first-round draft pick Devin Bush and give them speed in the middle of the field.

He didn't disappoint in his first preseason as a rookie, recording 14 tackles, 1.5 sacks and four quarterback hits, showing off that ability to be a sideline-to-sideline player.

Take a look at defensive highlights from the 2021 Steelers minicamp

But, to this point, this ability has been countered with back and ankle injuries, limiting him to 150 special teams snaps in seven games as a rookie, and 33 defensive plays and 46 special teams snaps in four games in 2020.

In 2020, the Steelers linebacker unit as a whole was hit hard by injuries. When Devin Bush was lost in Week 6 to a season-ended ACL injury against the Browns, Robert Spillane stepped into the starting lineup, with Gilbert seeing 14 snaps on defense and 15 on special teams the following week at Tennessee. The team had a plan to use Gilbert's speed in coverage. But he suffered a back issue that forced him out of the lineup for the next six weeks. He returned for a Week 14 loss at Buffalo, recording four tackles while playing a career-high 19 defensive snaps and six on special teams.

The following week at Cincinnati, however, he suffered an ankle injury, forcing him to finish the season on injured reserve.

Now, he'll head to training camp this season with an opportunity to make a mark within the unit – one that the Steelers have bolstered throughout the offseason.

Converted safety Marcus Allen saw playing time at linebacker in 2020 – in part due to the injuries the team suffered at the position. The team also signed veteran hybrid safety/linebacker Miles Killebrew to compete there, and selected another speedy linebacker, Buddy Johnson, in the fourth round of the draft. Young players such as Tegray Scales and Jarvis Miller are waiting in the wings, as well.

The preseason will help sort things out, but Gilbert has been healthy throughout the team's OTAs and minicamp, a big first step for a player who no doubt saw his role affected last season by the lack of the offseason programs and preseason in 2020.

The talent and desire are there, and Gilbert's speed is a dimension that can be useful in today's NFL. But there's also a saying among NFL coaches – the best ability is availability. Gilbert will get an opportunity to show both ability and availability once training camp begins.