Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 13.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS (6)
Jon Bostic, L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich, Tegray Scales, Robert Spillane, Vince Williams
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1; 1 unrestricted – L.J. Fort)
A LAST LOOK AT 2018
Because of the manner in which the unit collapsed following the injury to Ryan Shazier during the first quarter of a December 2017 game against the Bengals in Cincinnati, it was widely assumed the Steelers would make the selection of a prospect with similar skills at the position a priority in the 2018 NFL Draft. But when that lottery began, the Steelers were unable to trade up higher into the first round to pick a prospect they liked, nor were they fortunate enough to have one fall to them when their turn came at No. 28 overall, the team opted instead for safety Terrell Edmunds.
Whether Edmunds develops into the kind of playmaker the unit certainly needs still is to be determined, but what's not up for debate is that the Steelers find themselves no closer to finding one individual who might provide the defense with what Shazier was providing the unit. But come the end of the 2018 season, the Steelers had succeeded in shoring up their defense against the run compared to the end of 2017, and the play of the inside linebackers contributed to that improvement.
Vince Williams was the primary holdover from the 2017 group, and despite missing two starts – one because of a hamstring injury and the other because of a toe injury – he led all linebackers and was second on the team with 76 tackles. Williams also had 4.5 sacks, one interception, and two passes defensed.
As the 2018 offseason began, it appeared the Steelers' plan was to find a couple of inside linebackers, but because of the way the draft unfolded the only player they ended up adding was unrestricted free agent Jon Bostic from Indianapolis. Bostic took some time to settle in, but he continued to improve over the course of the regular season, and he would finish fourth on the team, and second among linebackers, with 73 tackles, and he didn't miss a game because of injury.
As the regular season progressed and the Steelers continued to look for someone to fill the role of a dime linebacker, L.J. Fort emerged as a guy who was able to get closest to what they needed from the position when it came to coverage responsibilities. As a result, Fort's playing time gradually increased, with a couple of notable examples being the late-season games against the Chargers (52 snaps on defense and a team-high 12 tackles) and the Saints (23 snaps on defense).
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Putting some numbers to what the search for a "Shazier style inside linebacker" entails in terms of production: In 41 regular season starts, Ryan Shazier had 24 tackles for loss, seven sacks, seven interceptions, 25 passes defensed, seven forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries; and in five postseason starts, he had three tackles for loss, two interceptions, four passes defensed, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019
If there is to be a theme attached to this Steelers offseason, it would be "add defensive playmakers," and for the second straight offseason the team finds itself in need of one at this position, and the need seems to grow annually in light of the way NFL offenses have evolved. If the Steelers were able to draft a three-down inside linebacker, adding him to a group that includes Williams and Bostic, with depth and special teams oomph provided by Fort and Tyler Matakevich, inside linebacker would become a position of strength on the defense. If that sounds as if it's a simple matter to get to here to there, well, it's not.
It's highly unlikely they would be able to find the kind of player who fits this description in free agency, because if a team has one it's not about to allow him to hit the open market, and if one would manage to find his way onto the open market, the cost would be prohibitive. And so the sole method of adding one would be via the draft, where the Steelers currently own the No. 20 overall pick in the first round.
Will there be such a player available when their turn comes at No. 20? Is it possible/realistic to trade up to get one if not? How high in the round would they have to go? And will they have the necessary draft capital to do so? Who are the three-down playmaking inside linebackers in this draft class?
As for Shazier, he will need a new contract to continue on the Steelers' roster as he continues working toward his goal of returning to the field. Team President Art Rooney II and General Manager Kevin Colbert already have made public statements this offseason indicating the team is going to do what's necessary to continue supporting Shazier.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Colbert said, "We're not comfortable talking about it until we get clarification from the league, because it's a unique situation. What I am comfortable in saying is that Ryan will be a part of the football roster in some form in 2019. We just have to figure out what's legal in terms of the NFL rules, and we're in the process of doing that.
"To be a member of the football part of the roster, yes, he has to have a contract. I can't speak for him, but he wants to try to play football again, and we'll support him. There's no ceiling on what we would ever say to him as far as him wanting to do that. That's totally up to him, and we'll support him in his rehab. He continues to rehab, he continues to improve. He'll be part of the football roster, and once we make the final determination as to how that has to work, we'll make that announcement."
NEXT: Defensive linemen