Steelers’ signing of Cole Holcomb addresses inside linebacker depth

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been actively filling needs during the 2023 NFL free-agency period without breaking their budget. After signing a veteran cornerback, a versatile offensive lineman, and re-signing a defensive lineman and safety from in-house free agents, Wednesday saw Pittsburgh address depth at inside linebacker by signing Cole Holcomb to a reported three-year deal.

Holcomb, a former walk-on at the University of North Carolina that didn’t receive an invite to the 2019 NFL Combine, gave scouts a performance when he blasted a 4.48 time in the 40-yard dash during the university’s pro day. It was enough to earn him a fifth-round selection from the Washington Commanders where he started for the past four seasons until a foot injury limited his 2022 season.

The injury was unfortunate as the interior linebacker had posted a career-best 69 tackles in just seven games before being sidelined.

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With Robert Spillane‘s departure earlier this week to the Las Vegas Raiders, the Steelers found a player in Holcomb that many feel is an upgrade in coverage and a willing thumper who can get sideline to sideline. His ability to diagnose plays and respond quickly were things pro scouts focused on ahead of the draft.

In 50 games with Washington, Holcomb logged 239 solo tackles, five forced fumbles, and earned 4.5 sacks. In 2021, his 142 tackles, seven pass defenses, and two interceptions (including a pick-six) earned him a top-25 off-ball linebacker rating from Pro Football Focus. By comparison, in 52 career games, Spillane recorded one interception (a pick-six), eight pass defenses, a fumble recovery, and 3.0 sacks.

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The Steelers still have decisions to make at the position, though. Spillane spelled Devin Bush and Myles Jack and played in other packages. With Mark Robinson entering his second season, though, Holcomb could share more snaps there than be a real backup to Bush or Jack.

The Steelers will still take a hard look at current draft prospects regardless of Holcomb’s signing due to uncertainty about how the team will do with Bush and Jack. Pittsburgh has the good fortune, now, to be able to select the best available player in the draft without being overly concerned that they must choose an interior linebacker in early rounds.

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