The Steelers will have quite a different look at inside linebacker in 2023 than they had in 2022. Free agency took a toll on the room in the offseason but still helped them to reload a bit at the position. In a mailbag Q&A this week, Mark Kaboly of The Athletic addressed the question of whether or not Pittsburgh did enough to address the position this spring.
First, let’s address the losses. All three of the team’s top contributors at inside linebacker departed in free agency in the offseason. Myles Jack was heading into the second year of the two-year contract he had signed to join the Steelers last year, but the team, instead, decided to release the veteran linebacker to open up about $8MM of cap space. After being allowed to test his market in free agency, Devin Bush signed a one-year contract in Seattle. Lastly, Robert Spillane, who served as a spot starter and factored heavily into the defensive rotation last year, also found his way to free agency, departing for Las Vegas.
That left three holes atop the roster at inside linebacker, including two starting spots. For one spot, the team signed former Commanders linebacker Cole Holcomb. A fifth-round pick for Washington back in 2019, Holcomb was an immediate starter as a rookie. This wasn’t the first time that Holcomb had surpassed expectations as, in college, he earned a scholarship after initially walking on at North Carolina. He’s now started 48 of the 50 games he’s appeared in, but injuries have kept him from appearing in a possible 16 additional games. Most crucially, he missed 10 games in 2022 due to a knee injury in November and foot surgery that ended his season in December. If healthy, though, Holcomb can certainly perform as the team’s top linebacker. His best season saw him rank as the league’s 23rd best linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), in 2020, and despite his injuries, he ranked 35th in 2022.
Another spot was filled by former Patriots and Dolphins linebacker Elandon Roberts. An eighth-year veteran, Roberts had a bit of a breakout year in 2022. After seeing his role diminish over his final years with the Patriots, Roberts found a way to improve over each season in Miami. Finally starting in every game of the season in 2022, Roberts recorded career-highs in total tackles (107), tackles for loss (10), and sacks (4.5) and tied a career-high in quarterback hits (6). He’s never graded out highly by PFF standards as a full-service linebacker, but last year, Roberts topped all NFL linebackers with an 89.2 pass rushing grade.
Pittsburgh is planning on filling the third hole internally by putting more responsibility on the shoulders of Mark Robinson to fill Spillane’s role from last year. A seventh-round pick for the team in 2022, Robinson only appeared in four games last season, making two starts in the final two games of the year. The Steelers have taken their time with Robinson, who had only played one season at linebacker in college after switching from running back. The team seems confident in Robinson’s ability to step up in Year 2. They relied on him last year in the team’s last two games against the Ravens and Browns, two run-heavy teams, and he may play a similar role this year.
For depth at inside linebacker, the team brought in Nick Kwiatkoski and Tanner Muse. Kwiatkoski has past experience as a full-time starter but hasn’t started a game since the 2020 season. Muse is primarily a special teamer.
So, did the Steelers do enough to address the losses at the position? It may be too soon to say whether they’ve successfully filled the holes in the roster. They did a lot, and the holes are filled, but whether they’ve been filled effectively has yet to be determined. Kaboly does think that the team has done enough to at least satisfy the demands of the roster. He doesn’t believe that the team will continue to pursue Kwon Alexander or other free agents, barring injury to the three players above. Unless Holcomb, Roberts, and Robinson make it clear that they can’t handle the duties of the position, Kaboly believes that “the 90 they have is the 90 they will bring to camp.”