Earlier this week we noted that the Pittsburgh Steelers have the No. 1 rated group of defensive linemen/edge rushers in the NFL, at least in the opinion of Pro Football Focus.
But what about Pittsburgh’s off-the-ball linebackers?
According to PFF, the Steelers have the eleventh-best group of linebackers in the NFL entering 2020, but that’s good enough to be the best unit in the AFC North.
The Baltimore Ravens are rated second-best at No. 20 in the NFL, with the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns trailing far behind at No. 30 and 31, respectively.
Devin Bush and Vince Williams
If there’s a concern about Pittsburgh’s inside linebacker group it’s that there’s a lack of depth—or at least a lack of proven depth.
Devin Bush—the tenth overall pick in the 2019 draft—“had the usual rookie ups and downs on his way to [a PFF] grade that ranked 40th among NFL linebackers,” notes PFF writer Steve Palazzolo. But “Bush’s athleticism has given Pittsburgh a different look … [and] he’s primed to take a big step forward in year 2.”
As for Vince Williams, he’s more of a traditional run-stuffer, but he has “been one of the league’s best blitzing linebackers over the past three years,” advises Palazzolo.
Bush and Williams—especially Bush—need to stay healthy in 2020, though, as “the rest of the five players on the depth chart have combined for four career snaps, so the pressure is on Bush and Williams to produce at a high level.”
As of today, the team’s primary backups are Ulysees Gilbert III and Robert Spillane, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Steelers made a move to add a player via trade or after cuts, depending on injuries and the development of Gilbert and Spillane, with the former considered a potential starter at some point down the road.
Gilbert is coming off a season-ending back injury, however. Last season he suffered from a fractured L-5 vertebra, which sidelined him for most of November and all of December.
Alex Highsmith’s Four-Year Contract
In related news: Earlier today, we related how third-round draft pick Alex Highsmith signed his rookie contract with the Steelers.
According to overthecap.com, Highsmith’s deal is worth a total of $4,306,810 over the course of four years, with a signing bonus of $832,292. He will earn $610,000 in salary in 2020, $814,518 in 2021, $961,000 in 2022 and $1,089,000 in 2023.
Highsmith will be groomed to replace OLB Bud Dupree, in the event Dupree leaves in free agency after the 2020 season, as seems likely. Last week Dupree filed a grievance with the NFLPA, arguing that he’s not a linebacker and should be paid like a defensive end. The outcome of the grievance could impact how much he is paid this year and next, assuming the Steelers decide to make him the team’s franchise player again in 2021.
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