Dating back to the tragic career-ending injury Ryan Shazier suffered in the 2017 season on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been searching high and low for an answer to the inside linebacker position.
To date, they still haven’t found that answer, even after Devin Bush looked like one during his rookie season in 2019 after the Steelers traded into the top 10 to draft him out of Michigan.
Now, entering the offseason ahead of the 2023 season in free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft — in which the Steelers three picks in the top 50 — the emphasis is on the Steelers finding an answer at the position, specifically a playmaking one, according to Bleacher Report’s Kristopher Knox.
That would be guys like Arkansas’ Drew Sanders, Clemson’s Trenton Simpson and Washington State’s Daiyan Henley in the draft, and former pre-draft visitor and standout Tennessee Titans’ linebacker David Long Jr. in free agency.
“If it’s financially feasible, Tennessee Titans linebacker David Long Jr. would be a prime free-agent target. Long was great against the pass in 2022, allowing an opposing passer rating of only 74.1 in coverage, according to Pro Football Reference. Pittsburgh could also look to target a linebacker like Arkansas’ Drew Sanders in the second round,” Knox writes regarding the potential targets for the Steelers in free agency or the NFL Draft at the inside linebacker position. “Pittsburgh had a good defense in 2022, one ranked 10th in points allowed. If the Steelers can reload and even improve their linebacker corps, they can take another step toward fielding an elite defense in 2023.”
The Steelers showed interest in Long Jr. coming out of West Virginia in the 2019 NFL Draft, the same year the Steelers traded up to acquire Bush. Long Jr. went much later in the draft, coming off the board in the sixth round, but put up some impressive production in Tennessee.
He fell in the draft largely due to his lack of size (5’11, 227 pounds), but has made himself into a starting off-ball linebacker. Through four seasons, Long has started 26 of 50 games played, tallying 230 total tackles (137 solo), 15 TFLs, 14 PBUs, four INTs, and two forced fumbles. He essentially has been what Pittsburgh hoped Bush would be, being an undersized, yet athletic LB that can run, hit, and cover as a new-age LB in the NFL.
Long Jr. will certainly be on the Steelers’ radar due to the work they did on him in the pre-draft process in 2019, bringing him into Pittsburgh as a pre-draft visit.
If the Steelers opt to address the position via the draft rather than in free agency once again, especially after paying Myles Jack last offseason, Sanders is a name to watch, especially with is versatility to be a three-down linebacker at the next level, at least according to Steelers Depot’s own Tom Mead.
Here’s what Mead had to say about Sanders in his draft profile on the Arkansas standout:
“Sanders is your modern day linebacker. He has the size, speed, length and demeanor to be disruptive and productive on all downs. He was recruited as an Edge player but after transferring to Arkansas he moved inside. The Razorbacks ran essentially a Dime defense most of the time with just two linebackers on the field. …A player that doesn’t have to come off the field in sub-packages. He has the added advantage of being able to rush off the edge as well. He has a high motor and will chase the ball on every play.”
Sanders is a popular name at No. 32 overall for the Steelers, should he fall out of the first round. No. 17 overall in the first round might be a bit too rich for Sanders and the Steelers, but that first pick of the second round makes a ton of sense, especially for a guy who has played just one season of off-ball linebacker in college after transferring to Arkansas from Alabama, where he was an EDGE defender.
With Marcus Allen, Robert Spillane and Bush all set to hit free agency, and questions remaining about Jack remaining a Steeler or being a cap casualty, the Steelers have to look long and hard at fixing the inside linebacker room again ahead of the 2023 season. It might not be the key cog in the defensive engine like the OLB position is in Pittsburgh, it’s very important overall to the defense’s success in the Steel City.