Lost amid the clamor for an outside linebacker or a cornerback with the No. 30 draft pick is one simple, glaring fact: Pittsburgh could easily select a linebacker, and history may even suggest it’s likely.
Twice in the past decade, Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert has pulled the trigger on a first-round inside linebacker, a position upon which he and Mike Tomlin obviously place significant value.
Of course, not just any linebacker will do, as a few key traits are required, and Jarrad Davis of Florida has those traits.
Athleticism is a box that Davis checks easily, both on tape and at Florida’s recent pro day. He’s a little stiff-hipped in his change of direction but Davis is a highly explosive inside linebacker with the size and burst to be a force coming downhill. He’s incredibly physical, uncoiling on blockers with a ferocious punch when engaging them at the point of attack.
Granted, Florida’s 4-3 defense was a little different than Pittsburgh’s odd-man front, but for an athlete as intelligent and driven as Davis, picking up new concepts is just the next trait he looks forward to proving.
“Playing in a 3-4 defense would be new,” Davis said at the NFL Combine in early March. “We ran a little bit of that at Florida, not a lot, just a couple packages like that. It would be foreign to me, but you just gotta put the time in. It’s like anything, whatever you put time into is exactly what you’re going to get out of it.”
In today’s pass-happy NFL, coverage skills are at an all-time premium for linebackers, and Davis offers impressive traits in that area, too. He’s able to flip his hips and smother seam routes, as he'll see in the Steelers' ever-increasing Cover 2 looks. He also moves alertly in zone coverage underneath. He’s a ferocious blitzer as well, picking up 5.5 sacks over his last two seasons at Florida.
“The biggest thing (in coverage) is technique,” Davis said. “You’ve got to work at it every day in practice. You’re not going to be able to go out there and cover a receiver or tight end, not in the NFL. You gotta beat yourself up about anything wrong that you do, because any misstep -- quarterbacks in this league are good, they’ll put the ball in tight windows, so you gotta be able to close those windows.”
Not every aspect of Davis’ game is perfect. He’ll abandon his keys and get sloppy with his footwork at times, maneuvering slightly out of position to force a tough recovery. He can get hung up on blocks at times, and isn’t always the most instinctive linebacker, struggling to react quickly if he doesn’t clearly see a play developing.
But of all the traits Pittsburgh’s decision-makers look for in their remade defense, competitive toughness and work ethic may be chief. Davis is heralded in both regards, cultivating his well-muscled 6-1, 238-pound frame all offseason while diligently seeking out and destroying his targets on the field. As for his toughness, that was manifest all season long when Davis refused to succumb to an injury that would have sidelined less willful players.
The senior battled his way back from a severe ankle sprain to somehow suit up against Georgia, a game with special meaning for him given his native roots in the state. Not only did Davis play after being a game-time decision, he paced the Gators with seven tackles and 2.5 tackles-for-loss, including the game-sealing stop to preserve a victory.
“I knew I was going to do everything I could to be out here with my boys," Davis told reporters after the game. “A lot of people don't get that, but if I would have sat out, I mean that makes me question myself and what I actually do this for, you know? Those guys, the time we put in this summer, the time we put in throughout this season, the energy, the blood, the sweat and tears we've shed. What I'm about wouldn't have showed up if I would have sat this game.”
That’s the mentality you’re getting with Davis, a guy who'll consistently put it all on the line for a win.
Florida Coach Jim McElwain called Davis “the heart and soul of this team." Given the mentality of recently acquired defenders in Pittsburgh, I expect that aspect of his profile to appeal to Colbert and Tomlin.
“I’m a very hard-working guy, very dedicated,” Davis said. “Football is not all I have, but I treat it like my everything. The way I approach the game and the way I work, I feel like I separate myself from a lot of people because of the way I think.”
(For the early, mid and late options in the Steelers' plans to bolster their linebacker positions, read Jim Wexell's breakdown here.)