Steelers OTA preview: Overhaul at inside linebacker will bear watching
Editor’s note: Heading into the start of OTAs, the Tribune-Review will take a daily look at a position that will bear watching once the entire 91-man roster convenes at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Today: Inside linebacker
Who’s back: Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich
Williams has started in the middle since Lawrence Timmons departed after the 2016 season, but this year his playing time could be challenged. Matakevich entered last offseason with the first crack at filling Ryan Shazier’s spot but eventually settled back into his familiar special teams role. He is entering the final year of his contract.
Who’s gone: Jon Bostic, L.J. Fort, Matthew Thomas, Keith Kelsey
If tackles were still the top responsibility for an inside linebacker, Bostic might still be on the roster. He finished third on the team in his lone year with the Steelers, but his lack of speed and coverage skills were exposed. Fort was solid as a situational backup, but he was lured to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency. Thomas (practice squad) and Kelsey (injured reserve) were not tendered contracts.
Who’s new: Mark Barron, Devin Bush, Ulysees Gilbert*, Sutton Smith*, Robert Spillane, Tegray Scales*
*Could change positions
Barron was signed in free agency to provide more speed in the middle of the defense. With his history of safety play, he also can be used in a hybrid role in subpackages. With a strong offseason and preseason, Bush, whom the Steelers traded up to draft 10th overall last month, could propel himself into a starting role. The Steelers fortified the position later in the draft by taking two raw players in Gilbert and Smith. Gilbert could be kicked outside — coach Mike Tomlin has hinted as much — and Smith could move inside. Spillane and Scales are first-year players who were signed to futures contracts earlier in the offseason. Scales also has a history of playing on the outside.
What’s at stake?: One starting spot is up for grabs, and the Steelers have Barron ready to take it if Bush isn’t ready to claim one as a rookie. Williams’ role also could be tweaked depending on how quickly Bush develops. In OTAs, another storyline to watch will involve whether Gilbert and Smith are used here. Smith was a pass rusher at Northern Illinois, but he is undersized for the position in the NFL, which is why the Steelers have pondered using him inside. Gilbert has comparable size to Smith, so it will be interesting to see how the Steelers deploy him once the entire roster hits in the field next week.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .