Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 18.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS (6)
Mark Barron, Devin Bush, Ulysees Gilbert, Tyler Matakevich, Robert Spillane, Vince Williams
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Tyler Matakevich)
A LAST LOOK AT 2019
Things changed dramatically at this position throughout the offseason one calendar year ago, with veteran Mark Barron being added during free agency, and then the Steelers moving up 10 spots in the first round of the draft to pick Devin Bush. Both of those moves gave the Steelers the kind of hybrid inside linebacker the team had been seeking since Ryan Shazier was injured in December 2017. Barron had entered the NFL as a college safety from Alabama, and Bush was a three-down linebacker in college, much as Shazier had been when the Steelers made him the 15th overall pick of the first round in 2014.
There can be little argument that the Steelers defense in 2019 was better than the 2018 version, even though the team's record was worse: 8-8 vs. 9-6-1. Last year's defense allowed fewer points (303-360), fewer yards (4,866-5,235), and fewer touchdowns (32-42). One area that might be traced directly to the inside linebackers found that even though the Steelers allowed more rushing yards in 2019 than in 2018 (1,753-1,538), the average per carry was lower in 2019 (3.8-4.2).
It took the Steelers a little while to settle on starting inside linebackers, because over the first three games they started three different pairs. In the opener against the Patriots, it was Bush and Vince Williams; the next week vs. Seattle, it was Mark Barron and Williams; and then the following Sunday in San Francisco, it was Barron and Bush.
There was some belief that the Steelers would spoon-feed Bush during the early portion of his rookie seson, but he ended up playing in every game and starting all but the one against the Seahawks. And his production began early in the season. Bush had 38 tackles in the first four games of the regular season, and he ended up leading the team with 109. And by the end of the regular season, Bush was tied for the team lead with four fumble recoveries, tied for third on the team with two interceptions, and fourth on the team with nine tackles-for-loss. With four fumble recoveries, two interceptions, and one forced fumble, Bush had a hand in seven of the defense's 37 takeaways. Also, Bush ended up playing 889 of the 1,081 defensive snaps on the season, which accounted for 82.2 percent.
Williams was the thumper of the top three inside linebackers, and while he led the unit with nine hits on the quarterback included among his 2.5 sacks, Barron ended up leading the group in sacks with three to go along with three passes defensed.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Before anyone chooses to find fault with Bush's rookie season, it's worth noting that as a rookie Ryan Shazier played in only nine games because of knee and ankle injuries, with five starts, while Bush played in 16 games with 15 starts. Bush also finished with more tackles, 109-34; more sacks, 1-0; more passes defensed, 4-1; more interceptions, 2-0; more forced fumbles, 1-0; more fumble recoveries, 4-0; and more defensive touchdowns, 1-0.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2020
There should be little doubt that Bush already is the best inside linebacker on the team even though he just completed his rookie season and won't be 22 years old until mid-July. That shouldn't be taken to mean Bush is a complete player already, or even that he doesn't still have work to do on his body before he gets himself to the point where Shazier was in December 2017 before being injured. But there was nothing about his rookie season to suggest there is an aspect of inside linebacker play he is incapable of mastering, and it all adds up to emphasizing that the Steelers got what they had needed for years when they traded up in the first round last season to make Bush the 10th overall pick.
What seems less clear is whether it will be, or should be, Barron or Williams as his full-time running mate at inside linebacker when the Steelers deploy their base defense. So much remains up in the air right now because of the undetermined status of the new labor proposal that has been forwarded to the players for a ratification vote, because if the deal is not ratified, the Steelers figure to find themselves in a much more difficult spot with the salary cap than they would if the deal is ratified.
One guess put forth at the Scouting Combine is the salary cap could jump from $200 million per team to $230 million per team if the league's current proposal is ratified, and in that event the Steelers likely would not have to make any difficult decisions at this position to get themselves under the cap and in a place to take care of their business priorities, one of which is believed to be creating enough room to put a tag on Bud Dupree while continuing to work on a long-term deal with him.
Otherwise, the Steelers could be forced into some financial decisions with players at this position that would do nothing to strengthen/maintain the roster. As examples, Barron, who will be 31 in late October, is due to count $8.13 million on the team's 2020 cap, and Williams, who will be 31 in late December, is due to count $7.03 million on the team's 202 cap.
And then there is Tyler Matakevich, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency on March 18 and arguably has been the team's most consistent special teams player since coming to the Steelers as a seventh-round draft pick in 2016. In his four NFL seasons, Matakevich has 52 special teams tackles and two blocked punts, with one of those two recovered in the end zone for a touchdown in the 2017 opener in Cleveland.
There always is the possibility that Matakevich could be lured away by a team offering a nice contract with the opportunity to start on defense, but if the Steelers simply lost him because of salary cap restrictions, that would be a shame.