The Pittsburgh Steelers had their struggles on defense last season and their weakness on that side of the ball was fully exposed in the AFC Championship against the New England Patriots. While there are more pressing areas of need on the defensive side of the ball such as the secondary and outside linebacker, the Steelers will need to address the middle linebacker position this offseason as well.
The Steelers currently have three inside linebackers headed for free agency, in Steven Johnson, Kevin Anderson and franchise stalwart Lawrence Timmons. Johnson and Anderson are merely depth players and could be re-signed or easily replaced, but Timmons presents a more interesting situation.
It’s likely that the Steelers re-sign Timmons to keep continuity on defense, but there’s also a distinct possibility that they may move on from him this offseason. Although he played well, Timmons showed signs of regression last season and it’s unknown how much he has left in the tank.
There are plenty of options available in free agency if the Steelers decide to let Timmons walk. Pittsburgh could opt for a veteran presence in the middle, but they would be better served going after the talented young linebackers on the market like Kevin Minter, Kiko Alonso or Manti Te’o.
All three players are realistic possibilities if the Steelers decide to pursue one of them. Alonso just lost his defensive coordinator, Vance Joseph, to the Denver Broncos and may be looking for a fresh change of scenery. Minter and Te’o, on the other hand, are coming off losing seasons with the Arizona Cardinals and the now Los Angeles Chargers and may want to go to an immediate contender like the Steelers.
There are a couple of options in the draft if Pittsburgh decides not to pursue any free agents, but the top inside linebacker prospects will be off the board by the time the Steelers pick at 30. As of now, there are only two realistic options for the Steelers in the first round if they don’t trade up.
Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham has a realistic shot of falling to Pittsburgh, as some scouts have him pegged as an early second round prospect. Known for his ability in coverage and sure tackling, Cunningham would be an excellent addition to the Steelers defense and would be the perfect complement to the run-stuffing Ryan Shazier.
The other realistic option Pittsburgh has is to select Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. Although he’s listed as a defensive back, Peppers spent most of the 2016 season lining up at linebacker and showed great instincts in both pass coverage and run support. While he had success at linebacker in college, most scouts see Peppers as more of “tweener” and aren’t high on his potential at linebacker in the NFL due to his undersized frame for the position.
No matter how they go about it, the Steelers should put a considerable amount of thought into how they’ll address their need at middle linebacker. With plenty of options in-house, in free agency and in the draft, Pittsburgh has no excuse if they don’t find a way to properly address the position. If they don’t find the proper fix, it’ll be another down year on defense in 2017.
Mike Esposito is the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos Staff Writer at Endzonescore.com. Follow him on Twitter @espo6891