5 for Friday: Holcomb might be the most important FA signing

The Steelers have tried various approaches to filling their needs at inside linebacker.

They've selected linebackers in the first round of the draft and taken shots on them throughout the course of the seven-round event in the past handful of years.

They've signed high-priced veterans and gone for lower-priced prospects at the position.

Thus far, it's been a little like the "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."

They have sampled different porridges. The only problem is that they haven't found the one that is just right.

Perhaps that will be the case this year.

With the exception of 2022 seventh-round draft pick Mark Robinson, the Steelers have an entirely new inside linebackers room this season. And that even includes the coach, as Aaron Curry takes over as the leader of that room that now includes veterans Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, Tanner Muse, Nick Kwiatkoski and Chappelle Russell as well as Robinson, might be lacking in name recognition. But it's also lacking in big-ticket veterans.

And that seems to be the way the league is moving – particularly on defense.

Pay for your stars at key positions such as pass rushers and cover men. The rest will take care of itself.

It will be the job of Curry to coach up the group to which the 30-year-old Kwiatkoski was added this week after a tryout at minicamp, and turn them into a unit with which the Steelers can win.

"You show them what's acceptable and what's unacceptable," Curry said last week at the team's minicamp. "Every man in the room has to see that and take that critique and learn what's going to be acceptable for linebackers and what's going to be unacceptable.

"Go look at how the Steelers have played defense around here for years. Guys have been running and hitting for years, playing physical and tough for years. Show them men who have played in this uniform before them and they understand what's acceptable. If it doesn't look like that, it's unacceptable."

The question then becomes, is this group capable of playing "above the line" needed to win, as head coach Mike Tomlin likes to say?

Holcomb is the most talented of the group. But in two of the past three seasons, he was injured in Washington.

When he's been on the field, he's been extremely productive, averaging 9.2 tackles per game over the past two seasons while recording a sack, two interceptions and eight pass defenses in those 23 games.

If he can stay healthy in 2023, the Steelers should be fine at the position. If not, then things get interesting.

With the notable exception of Robinson, the others in that room have played a varying degrees of snaps in the NFL and shown themselves to be capable. They all have their own unique skill sets. But Holcomb is clearly the most complete player of the group.

He might be the most important of the team's 2023 free agent signings. The Steelers have options outside of cornerback Patrick Peterson, guard Isaac Seumalo and others they have signed. But when it comes to Holcomb, they don't have another like him.

"I know what they're expecting, and I feel like I can fit in well, and I think this is my kind of organization," Holcomb said. "I love the atmosphere. I love the fan base. I love the organization. I love the coaching staff. And I'm just super excited to get started working with these guys."

• Robinson is a player Steelers fans have high expectations for after he showed some ability to get downhill fast in last year's preseason.

But let's also remember that Robinson was a seventh-round draft pick in 2022 for a reason. He has been a linebacker for just a couple of years now after spending most of his college career as a running back.

And playing linebacker in 2023 is much, much different than it was 20 years ago.

Twenty years ago, you could take a great athlete such as Kendrell Bell and just tell him to go hunt the football with great results.

In today's game, young linebackers will get manipulated by offensive coordinators like crazy. One false step and you're toast.

"We signed those guys because we knew we had two guys that can start," defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said of Holcomb and Roberts. "A little different skill set in that regard where E Rob is really a first and second-down thumper-type of guy. Cole may give you a little more flexibility to be able to play every down. And so, we like that because we had those guys, we knew they started in the NFL, we know they're capable starters. 

"And we thought that we saw enough from Mark Rob that we could bring him along. Still a work in progress, still probably not quite ready, but really making good strides. I think when you watch him as I watch him, he's better at communication, he's better at pass coverage, he's better at some of the things where he was hurting last year. But (he) still has a way to go, but he's really working on it, and you see the improvement. And so, what you're hoping for is, as he continues to improve, maybe next year he's ready to really compete for that starting job."

That might not be what fans want to hear, but it's the reality. The Steelers selected Robinson as a project. It's a project on which they're continuing to work, but a project nonetheless.

A big step for him this season would be becoming a very valuable member of special teams, something he should be able to do.

• Robinson is a perfect example of what's happened to the running back position.

He spent two seasons at Southeast Missouri and another at Presbyterian universities as a running back before transferring to Mississippi and converting to linebacker.

The starting running back is the best athlete – or one of the best athletes – on every high school football team.

Then, guys get to college and all those running backs wind up converting to other positions.

That's been happening since the dawn of college football. There's nothing new there.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

But when they get to the NFL, there's still a plethora of talented backs available coming out of the college ranks. Given the wear and tear placed on the position, because of the supply and demand, some feel they can just get a back anywhere.

Things such as talent and durability should matter.

The shelf life for running backs might not be what it is for other positions in the league. But they're still important.

• On the podcast "Footbahlin with Ben Roethlisberger," Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt admitted he struggled to stay healthy last season and was never 100 percent.

Watt suffered a knee injury in the preseason that he was prepared to play through until he tore his pectoral muscle in Week 1, missing the next seven games.

And then, when he came back, the wear and tear of the season was rough.

"It was just like every little thing – I had a rib injury. I had a thumb," Watt said. "It was just one of those years for me where I could never get 100 percent fully healthy, so it was a little frustrating.

"I feel great now. I really do. And it's been a great offseason for me. If you play long enough in this league, you're going to have those years. You're going to have those weeks. And it's just how you respond to it. So, that's what I'm looking forward to doing."

Watt managed just 5.5 sacks in 10 games last season, a good total for most players, but pedestrian for a player of his caliber.

On the plus side, Alex Highsmith emerged as what Tomlin called an "Elite Robin," at minicamp.

That was not a knock at all on Highsmith.

Watt is clearly Batman in that dynamic duo. But Robin is a superhero in his own right.

And if the Steelers have Batman doing Batman-type things and an "Elite Robin," they should be really good on defense in 2023.

• There are just over 30 days until the Steelers report to Saint Vincent College for the start of training camp.

It feels more like a countdown to Christmas.

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