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Winning Championships: The Franchise Quarterback Vs. The Loaded Defense

As strange as it may sound, this book might just be the key to Pittsburgh’s upcoming draft.

The Divisional Round playoff loss to the Jaguars was a tough one to stomach.  There were the questionable play calls on fourth-&-inches; there was the controversial onside kick; but, the most glaring problem in that game was the performance, or lack thereof, by Sean Spence.  My intention is not to bash Spence, but rather to highlight the fact that an upgrade has to be made at the inside linebacker position.  Because, cutting to the chase, Spence is what he is: a third-string backup who was forced to start due to injuries to both Ryan Shazier (spine) and Tyler Matakevich (shoulder).

We could analyze and dissect every snap that Spence played, but Pro Football Focus already did that, and they graded him out to be the “worst” linebacker in the NFL (take that how you will).  Similarly, you can read The Point of Pittsburgh’s own analysis of Spence.

Again, I apologize to Spence if it sounds like I am trouncing him.  Regardless of all of the missed tackles in all of the other games in which he played, we can focus on one single play from the Jaguars game as a microcosm of Spence’s lack of ability: fourth-&-goal on Jacksonville’s opening drive.

Despite the fact that the Jaguars had run all over the Steelers on Jacksonville’s opening drive, Pittsburgh’s defense stiffened up and forced a fourth-&-goal from the one-yard line.  Doug Marrone decided to go for it on fourth down (gutsy… I like that), and the Steelers were primed to regain the momentum.  At the snap, Spence diagnoses the play correctly, fills the appropriate hole, and even makes contact with Leonard Fournette.  Alas, Fournette goes right past Spence for the touchdown.  Spence did everything right on that play, except for actually stopping Fournette… because, Spence simply is not good enough.  Spence has the smarts to play in the NFL, but just not the necessary physical attributes to make those kinds of plays.

If Shazier (or, maybe even Matakevich) are in there, the Steelers stop the Jaguars.

So, with Shazier most likely not coming back, and Matakevich being a good, but not great, player, the time has come to draft an inside linebacker in the first round of the draft.  I know, I know: since Spence was the “worst” linebacker in the NFL, we do not need to spend a first round pick on an inside linebacker; a mid-round pick would play better than him.  But, I do not want to merely replace Spence. I want to get a linebacker whose performance will be as close to Shazier’s level of play as possible… and that can only really happen with a first round pick.

Obviously, the first name to come to mind is Roquan Smith (Georgia), but he’s going to go in the top ten, and if we were to trade up that far, it would be for a quarterback (not for an inside linebacker).  So, we can scratch Smith off of the list of possible picks.

Next up is Tremaine Edmunds (Virginia Tech).  The kid reminds me of TJ Watt, in that Edmunds is able to play both inside and outside linebacker (although Edmunds would primarily be an inside linebacker who occasionally lines up on the outside).  That kind of versatility is essential for how Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler like to use their linebackers.  A similarly versatile player is Rashaan Evans (Alabama), because he actually is an outside linebacker who is projected to play inside linebacker.  Unfortunately, both of these players will likely be drafted before the 28th pick.  I will not scratch them off of the list, but I also am not going to hold my breath that they drop to to the Steelers.

Which brings us to a very intriguing player: Malik Jefferson (Texas).  Jefferson has the speed and athleticism that the Steelers need.  If the football Gods were to create the physical embodiment of an inside linebacker, Jefferson would be it.  But… he will need a year (or two) of coaching.

We all saw CJ Mosley start from day one, while Ryan Shazier took a few years to get up to speed.  By the fourth year, Shazier was arguably the better player, and if we are truly trying to replace Shazier, then Jefferson would be about as close of a doppelgänger that there is in this draft.  That said, with Ben Roethlisberger’s window closing, do the Steelers have the luxury of waiting two (or three) seasons for Jefferson to reach his full potential?  The answer is: no.

So, that brings us to Leighton Vander Esch (Boise State).

A cure for Pittsburgh’s defense might be Leighton Vander Esch. (photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

Living in San Diego, where the San Diego State Aztecs and/or teams from the WAC are on television frequently, I saw quite a few of Vander Esch’s games.  Mind you, having two children under the age of six, I am no longer able to watch games as closely as I used to, and I certainly no longer spend my nights watching hours of tape on players.  Most of my analysis comes from having the game on in the background while I am playing LEGOs… and, simply noticing whose play stands out.

You can turn your nose up at that type of evaluation, but honestly, it has been effective.  For example, a few years back, while playing Barbies with my daughter, I noticed that Deone Bucannon kept making play after play.  Everyone else had him going in the second round, and I was adamant that he was worthy of a first round pick.  Likewise, every time I looked up during a Washington Huskies game, Marcus Peters was doing something special.  Same goes with Danielle Hunter (LSU), Karl Joseph (West Virginia), and so on and so forth.

You could call my current method of player evaluation the “blink” method, named after the book by Malcolm Gladwell.  A condensed and overly-simplified explanation of what Gladwell found in his book is that one’s gut reaction to a situation is almost always correct.  Case in point: I used to spend hours evaluating footwork and mechanics, so on and so forth… yet, my mock drafts were no more accurate then than my current “blink” mock drafts have been.  Truthfully, maybe I was actually over-analyzing things… almost talking myself out of players; whereas, I now simply go with the guy who stands out the most, which is this case is undeniably Leighton Vander Esch.

Using my instincts as a launching point, a quick viewing of Vander Esch’s highlights (which, admittedly, can be misleading) showed that my instincts were indeed correct.  Vander Esch has a nose for the ball, but more importantly, he is able to fight through the fray and locate the ball carrier.  A lot of linebackers play well in open space, but they can get washed out when playing “in a phone booth”, but Vander Esch is able to avoid getting blocked and/or held, in order to make a beeline for the ball carrier.  Furthermore, Vander Esch still has enough speed to make plays in the open field.  Mind you, he is nowhere near as fast nor as athletic as Ryan Shazier (or Malik Jefferson), but he is indeed fast enough to make plays in space.

Again, I have not analyzed his statistics nor looked at his speed, and I have certainly not evaluated his footwork, but I do know without hesitation that every time that Boise State was playing, I would notice Vander Esch around the ball.

That said, most draft “experts” disagree with me and see him as a second-round pick.  Regardless, I am sticking with my gut instinct (versus listening to “expert” evaluations), and Vander Esch will be drafted in the first round… hopefully, by the Steelers.

In other words, Vander Esch was already on my radar, and the Divisional Round loss to the Jaguars put an exclamation mark on the need for an inside linebacker.  Furthermore, watching three of the four teams playing in the Championship Games being led by average (at best) quarterbacks, who had stellar defenses convinced me that loading up on defense (inside linebacker) was indeed the correct route to go in the first round.

But, then came the AFC Championship Game.

In that game, I witnessed the importance of a franchise quarterback.  Simply put, Tom Brady was the difference in that game.  His 158 yards in the fourth quarter were too much for the Jaguars and Blake Bortles to overcome, forcing me to reconsider my stance on drafting an inside linebacker in the first round.

I know that Ben is coming back for three more seasons.  Likewise, I understand how poorly Spence has performed, and in turn, adding an inside linebacker is absolutely necessary for the Steelers.  But, in the playoffs, when push came to shove, a team with a loaded defense & an average quarterback (Jaguars) lost to a team with a decent defense & a franchise quarterback (Patriots).

Cutting to the chase: maybe the Steelers should draft Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Louisville.

With three years to sit & learn, Lamar Jackson could become Pittsburgh’s heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger.

If you remember back to what I said about Malik Jefferson needing two (or three) years to develop, well, that goes equally for Lamar Jackson.  There is not another player in yet past five drafts, let alone this upcoming draft, who has the raw physical skills that Jackson possesses.  For example, if Jackson switched positions to either running back or wide receiver, Jackson would arguably be a “top three” player in this draft at either of those positions.

But, I have zero interest in having Jackson change positions. I want him to spend three seasons developing into a franchise quarterback, so that when Ben retires, the Steelers keep rolling right along.  For those unaware of why having a franchise quarterback is important, go watch tape of the Steelers quarterbacks in the 1980s and 1990s.  There were a few decent quarterbacks in there (Blake Bortles-esque) and some stellar defenses (defenses that were even better than the current Jaguars defense).  But, when push came to shove, those quarterbacks failed miserably.  Case in point: one “unnamed” quarterback made sure that Larry Brown was named MVP of Super Bowl XXX.

There are naysayers who see Lamar Jackson as nothing more than this generation’s version of Michael Vick.  Truthfully, there is some validity to those concerns.  Jackson’s footwork needs improvement, as he throws with his arm (not with his legs).  His accuracy is questionable; although, his supporting cast dropped over twelve percent of the balls thrown to them (which would negatively affect Jackson’s 59% completion percentage).  And, when things break down, Jackson’s instinct is to run (as opposed to finding an outlet receiver).  But… there are times when Jackson completes passes that make you stop and stare in awe.  If Jackson could throw like that on even half of his attempts, the Steelers would have themselves the quarterback that Kordell Stewart was supposed to be.

Of course, in order to accomplish this goal, Jackson will need a few years of coaching.  Luckily, with Ben coming back for three more seasons, the Steelers are one of the few teams in the NFL with the luxury of time.

But, I really want an inside linebacker.

What to do, what to do.

I decided that Super Bowl LII would determine whether the Steelers should draft an inside linebacker or a quarterback.  I decided that if the team with the franchise quarterback (Patriots) won, I would “go all-in” on Lamar Jackson.  And, if the team with the stellar defense (Eagles) won, I would target Leighton Vander Esch.

Well, the franchise quarterback lost, and the stellar defense gave up the most yardage by a winning team in any Super Bowl.  So… um… hmm.  I guess that means that the Steelers will be drafting a tight end???  Joking aside (kind of), I will honor my “coin-flip” prediction, and as of today, my mock draft has Leighton Vander Esch being Pittsburgh’s first round draft pick… which is who my gut originally told me would be the pick anyway.

Tiger is a Steelers contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh

21 Comments on Winning Championships: The Franchise Quarterback Vs. The Loaded Defense

  1. Kelechi Anozie // February 6, 2018 at 8:02 AM // Reply

    With Ben returning next season, I believe it’s more than likely that the Steelers will address either the linebacker position or safety position in the 1st round as this is an area of need. As much as I like LaMar Jackson as a QB, I’m not too certain how he’d fit in the current configuration, as they already drafted Joshua Dobbs last season and they’re likely not going to release Landry Jones; that said, anything is possible.

    The void left by Shazier’s absence was too great to ignore, so the idea of getting someone like Malik Jefferson or Leighton Vander Esch. The other name that has come up was BYUs Fred Warner during the Senior Bowl, whom could be a potential second or third day picks; thus we can assume that the Steelers could double up on the LB position.

    Lastly, there’s the free safety position currently occupied by Mike Mitchell. As far as I know, Mitchell could be released and the Steelers had all kinds of problems in the deep middle of the field. With only Robert Golden in the mix, it’s unlikely they’d replace Mitchell with Golden at starter; thus getting a safety in the draft or FA is an area of importance

    So in my estimation, with all the problems the Steelers had in the latter part of the season on defense, it’s more than likely they’ll invest on defense; if this had not been the case and if Ben was uncertain about coming back as he was at the end of the 2016 season, then Jackson would be most certainly the type of QB that would be on their radar.

    • You’re right. After that Jacksonville loss, I was all-in on an ILB. The AFCCG made me second-guess that, but really, giving Ben a solid defense is the right choice.

      That said, The Rooney’s think long-term. Ergo, it would not be unfashionable to see the Steelers get their heir apparent at 28.

      re: Fred Warner. The Steelers do indeed draft players they meet with; so, we should keep an eye on him. I watched a few minutes of his tape, and my “blink” reaction is that he tackles really high.

      re: Mike Mitchell. Yep, I can give you $8 million reasons why he will be released. There is a HUGE cluster of safeties that will go in R2. (That’s the topic of my next article.)

  2. Current All-Pro Inside Linebackers not taken in the 1st round:

    Bobby Wagner – Seattle – 2nd
    Navarro Bowman – San Francisco via Penn State – 3rd
    Kiko Alonso – Miami – 2nd
    Deion Jones – Atlanta – 2nd
    Jordan Hicks – Philadelphia – 3rd (lost this season to torn Achilles, so maybe never as good again).

    • Kelechi Anozie // February 6, 2018 at 10:40 AM // Reply

      Not sure exactly what the context of this post means.

      All I know is this, they don’t have much at that position aside from Tyler Matakevich and LJ Fort; none of these guys constitute as a decent Mack ILB to compliment Vince Williams. So unless Shazier makes a miraculous comeback next season, or if they sign a high level linebacker in FA, they’re likely to go 1st round ILB as they did in 2014.

      The only exception would be at safety and that would depend on whether or not Mike Mitchell gets released; in that case, you can make the case of them choosing safety in the first, which they haven’t done since Troy Polamalu in 2003.

      • My only point was that this is a rich linebacking class and they don’t necessarily have to go 1st round to try and get some help in case Shazier never makes it back. I would rather see the Steelers address safety or QB with the 1st pick, that’s all.

        • Kelechi Anozie // February 6, 2018 at 3:04 PM // Reply

          The QB part would make sense if the Steelers didn’t have a starting QB and/or backups. They already have 3 QBs in their system, why would they retract one for the sake of a drafted QB in the first round? As far as I know, Ben is very much capable of playing a high level for a few more years, and the majority of QBs in this class quite frankly, are barely worth expending a 1st round pick, in exception for the ones in the top 5 (ie: Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen)

          Secondly, on a team which had an perennial All-Pro LB in the middle, that covered up every weakness in the middle of that defense (Ryan Shazier); this defense is likely going to need about the same level of skill in the middle. Right now, they don’t have an adequate Mack ILB that can play alongside Vince Williams. Players like Bowman that you noted are few and far between in the later rounds. If you’re looking for a player is likely going to be impactful from day 1, you’re better chance is in the first round.

          The only scenario where I believe this becomes an exception, is if they sign through FA, so Pro-Bowl/experienced linebacker. Even in this scenario, I don’t see how it would make sense to take a QB in the first round at the 28th spot.

          For the Steelers to win a SB, their defense has got to be exponentially better than it was last year; as it stands, the offense has much more talent than the D and that’s a big problem.

          • Bob Stover // February 6, 2018 at 4:32 PM //

            You would be shocked at the number of Top 5 QB picks who have been total busts and how many have ever won a Super Bowl.

        • (Bob) I see your point about going safety first (and then ILB in R2). That said, IMO, there are five “stud” ILBs, and then a bunch of guys who are really good (yes, you could indeed get a good ILB in R2).

          But, IMO, the safety class has one great player (Minkah Fitzpatrick) followed by a bunch that will go anywhere from 15 to 65 (depending on a team’s preference). Ergo, the difference between a S drafted at 28 and a S drafted at 60 might not be all that different.

          Getting the most bang for one’s buck, I’d go ILB then S.

          • Bob Stover // February 7, 2018 at 11:20 AM //

            When you draft at #27, there’s always a question of who will actually be available when the Steelers get to draft, so I’m not setting anything in stone. I guess I’m not as certain as some others that Shazier will not be back. It’s his stated intention to play again, and if anyone can do it, I’d bet on the Shaz. Given that he might be back and that Safety is a big need, if there’s an impact safety on the board at #27, then I’d go safety first and then ILB 2nd. If there is no impact safety, I’d simply reverse the order of those two selections.

    • Kelechi Anozie // February 6, 2018 at 6:34 PM // Reply

      Even with that Bob, it still makes more sense for a team in desperate need of a starting QB, to draft one in 1st round (whether it be in the top 5 or later), than to wait later rounds for a QB that may not even make the practice squad.

      Coming back the point I made earlier, this team isn’t going to benefit at this point getting a QB in the first round, when Ben Roethlisberger is coming back; had this not been the case, then this would be a different discussion.

      They’re not going to win a Superbowl getting a QB, when their defense is ailing the way it is.

      I’ve been writing articles here for months now, and in reading the comments seen in the Postgame summaries, people like yourself and others complained about this defense and rightfully so. After all that complaining, you’re now trying to rationalize the reasons why the Steelers should spend their first pick on a position that is NOT an area of need; rather than address the positions on defense that were exposed badly against Jacksonville?

      • The only reason that I singled out Top 5 for QB selection is that there are only a couple or 3 true 1st round QB picks this year, and they may all be gone by #5. There have been many more successful franchise and Super Bowl winning QB’s that have come lower in the first round or even in the 2nd round. Adam Haberman did a real nice breakdown on the success of Top 5 QB selections the other day on the Friends of Bob blog. You should give it a read.

        • Kelechi Anozie // February 7, 2018 at 1:06 PM // Reply

          I definitely will, I hope that one thing it takes into account is necessity, which plays a big factor in this entire discourse.

          Firstly, the Steelers already have a two-time Superbowl winning, All-Pro, multi-Pro Bowl QB that has committed to staying. A QB mind you that the Steelers didn’t have to find in the top 5 (drafted 11th in 2004); so anything else you find in this draft, you’ll be downgrading from Ben.

          Secondly, let’s pretend that the Steelers are planning to trade up to get in the top 5 for a QB, then the next question is who or what would they have to give up to get that high in the draft? Well I can give you that answer and you might not like it.

          Lastly it comes back to necessity. Again, if this were 2016 and Ben was hinting at retirement, then it would make sense to start talking QB; even at that a top 5 QB doesn’t ensure that he would fill that void. You have to remember this about QB, each QB is as good as the system it plays in. A great example is Jared Goff. His was drafted 1st overall and under Jeff Fisher was a disaster. This season under their new coach he was a success; thus there a lot more to a QB having success than picking in the top 5. The greatest example of all time in this respect is Tom Brady; picked in the 6th round but under Belichick, is quite possibly the greatest QB of all time.

          Simply, this team right now if you look at it objectively, the area of need is on defense. Their offensive talent far exceeds what’s on defense and that’s a problem. When it comes to winning Superbowls, the defense is generally the side that matters the most, as we saw when Brandon Coleman got that strip sack on Tom Brady, leading to the Eagles getting the field goal they needed to win. In the game against Jacksonville, the defense didn’t have enough talent in the back end or in the middle to beat a mediocre QB like Blake Bortles; thus we can’t be talking QB in this discourse, if we talking about what the Steelers need at this point.

          • Bob Stover // February 7, 2018 at 2:02 PM //

            I was never advocating that the Steelers take a QB first this year. Quite frankly at #28, a QB there is almost a second rounder anyway. Brady is a once in a lifetime find in the 6th round, but there have been a lot of star QB’s that weren’t first round picks. I remember when the Steelers picked Ben at #11 in the first round that there were many doubters in the sporting press, due to the fact that he played at a smallish program in Miami of Ohio. There were many who said the same things about Carson Wentz. His college competition made him a big risk as a 1st rounder. I happen to agree with you that the system and coach have to fit the QB’s skills in order for him to be successful. Unfortunately, most first rounders who don’t get the right fit with their first team are never heard from again.

      • Kelechi Anozie // February 7, 2018 at 2:27 PM // Reply

        Then I’m fully confused with your position. In your post yesterday, you noted “I would rather see the Steelers address safety or QB with the 1st pick, that’s all.”

        The safety part made sense but you noted QB as well which was confusing. So which one would you rather see, safety or QB?

        • As opposed to LB, yes, but my real point was that Safety should be their first priority. I don’t think this QB class is deep enough to justify a 1st round pick at #28. I’m not against them drafting Ben’s replacement this year, but it’s going to have to be someone that’s not considered a 1st rounder. There are lots of them if you remove the 1st round significance, and you never know who will be a good or even great QB.

          • Kelechi Anozie // February 7, 2018 at 3:28 PM //

            I can tell you this, Ben isn’t going anywhere for a while as just reported here by Jeremy Fowler of ESPN, which is great news; he noted that Ben wants to stay beyond his two remaining years.
            https://twitter.com/JFowlerESPN/status/961315357054074882

            In terms of a safety, there were 2 mock Steelers drafts that had them picking Ronnie Harrison out of Alabama. If Harrison is anything like Landon Collins who also came from U of Alabama in 2012, then the Steelers fans will counting their blessings.

          • Bob Stover // February 7, 2018 at 4:23 PM //

            Here’s hoping that Harrison is still on the board at #28.

  3. (Bob) I agree that it all matter who is actually there at 28. If Ronnie Harrison is there, he’d be difficult to pass on… unless, let’s say, Tremaine Edmunds is (somehow) still available.

    IMO, a team is best served going for the BPA (best player available), with “need” being the tie-breaker.

    ILB then S … S then ILB. It all depends on how the first 27 picks unfold.

    • Exactly right. If you would see a projected first rounder all all the way to #28, he might fall all the way to the second or third round. That sometimes happens on draft day even with highly touted players. So you just never know who’s going to be on the board at a certain point.

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