(Another in a series examining the Steelers' 90-man roster as the team heads to training camp to begin the process of cutting down to 53 players in advance of the 2020 regular season.)
ON THE ROSTER NOW: Devin Bush, Ulysees Gilbert, John Houston, Leo Lewis, Robert Spillane, Vince Williams.
ON THE ROSTER IN SEPTEMBER: Bill Cowher kept four inside linebackers every year he worked with Kevin Colbert, but Mike Tomlin has kept four only once in the last seven seasons. Otherwise it has been five, even six in 2016. The prediction here, though, is four will be kept, just based on the apparent talent at hand.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: The Steelers received only 6.5 sacks from their group of inside linebackers last season, the lowest total since the group posted six in Ryan Shazier's rookie season of 2014. Three of those 6.5 sacks left in the person of Mark Barron, so to keep up with the previous year's total, Williams (2.5) and Bush (one) would have to figure to contribute more in that area.
KEY DEPARTURES: Barron was an effective bridge to the Bush era as a coverage linebacker, but he was released and remains on the market. Tyler Matakevich developed into a reliable reserve and core special-teamer but was signed away in free agency by the Buffalo Bills.
KEY ADDITIONS: Spillane was signed to the practice squad last October, activated a month later and played in five games down the stretch of the regular season. So he can be considered a seasoned vet in this group. The only new additions are undrafted rookie free agents Lewis and Houston. Lewis (6-2, 245) went to Ole Miss as a five-star recruit, made the freshman All-America team and started again as a sophomore in the 3-4 alignment, but he was moved outside in the team's 4-3 for his last two seasons. Houston (6-3, 220) went to USC as a Parade All-America and was a three-year starter. As a captain during his redshirt senior season he made a career-high 104 tackles.
FIGHT TO THE FINISH: Spillane will have to hold off the undrafted rookies by doing what he does best: special teams. Spillane drew praise from unit captain Matakevich late last season, and that may have been one of the reasons the team didn't offer more to keep Matakevich. Spillane is the grandson of former Steelers running back Johnny Lattner, the 1953 Heisman Trophy winner who made the Pro Bowl in his only season with the team before tearing up a knee playing football in the service.
THE SKINNY: Bush enters his second season with high expectations, thanks to the second-year growth of the last great defensive playmaker who was a first-round trade-up target: Troy Polamalu. Similarly sized and skilled, Bush of course is a heavier inside linebacker, but he has the potential to become a great playmaker in his own right. Next to him will be Williams, the solid veteran who adds thump vs. the run game and pass-rushing skills (both from the edge or the interior) against the pass. Gilbert is an exciting second-year player. He flashed his 4.51 40 time on special teams, and the stage never looked too big for him. A back injury cost him the second half of the season, but what he showed had to make the coaches excited as he enters his second season.
NEXT: Outside Linebackers