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).
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.
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.