Matt Williamson is a former NFL scout and current co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio Subscribe to the podcast here. Williamson's opinions do not reflect those of the Steelers organization.
The Draft Pick: Buddy Johnson, LB, Texas A&M
The Draft Spot: Fourth Round, 140th Overall
With the 140th overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected Buddy Johnson out of Texas A&M after taking Johnson's college teammate, Dan Moore Jr., just a dozen picks earlier. As was the case with Moore, Pittsburgh took advantage of the strength at a deep position in this class-in this case: off-the-ball linebacker.
The Cowboys took Penn State's Micah Parsons a dozen picks into the draft. Zaven Collins went four picks later to Arizona and Jamin Davis was then the 19th selection overall by Washington. There was a bit of a lull at this position before Cleveland traded up to grab Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the middle of the second round. Nick Bolton and Pete Werner also were second round picks as true linebackers. Four more linebackers were taken in Round 3 and two more were selected in the fourth frame before the Steelers plucked Johnson off the board. A dozen second level defenders going in the first 115 picks speaks to the depth at this position this year and that depth again worked to Pittsburgh's advantage with Johnson falling to them in the late fourth round.
What is Johnson as a player? Johnson stands 6' 1 1/2" and weighs just under 230 pounds. He was a four-year starter in college and obviously has a lot of experience in the very challenging SEC. A team captain, he is considered a very high character player and leader. He is tough, reliable, and durable. He did play a lot of quarterback in high school and that experience should help him better understand route combinations and what NFL offenses are looking to accomplish. What really stands out about Johnson is how he flies around the football field, an approach that might need some fine tuning at the NFL level. He plays with great energy nonetheless and impressed at Texas A&M's pro day by running the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds with excellent jump numbers. Johnson has a flare for making big plays and is a true striker.
After losing Ryan Shazier to a tragic on-the-field injury, the Steelers were sent scurrying at the linebacker position. So, in the 2019 draft, Pittsburgh uncharacteristically traded up in the first round-moving from 20 to the 10th spot to draft Devin Bush as a true every down linebacker. Of course, the Steelers will be getting Bush back to form as a foundational every down player at just 22 years old. But Bush was only able to appear in five games, playing just 278 snaps, last year before tearing his ACL.
As a result, three other Steelers linebackers ended up out-snapping Bush in 2020 with Vince Williams leading the team in linebacker snaps. Williams was on the field 671 snaps last year, but that was only 65% of the Steelers total defensive snaps for the season. Robert Spillane played 371 snaps and Avery Williamson was on the field for 309 after being acquired from the Jets on November 1st. Marcus Allen, who is more linebacker than safety nowadays, also contributed with 206. Williams, Spillane, and Allen are currently on the roster alongside the rookie Johnson.
What does this tell us? The Steelers have been searching for depth at this critical position. In terms of personnel usage, Pittsburgh's defense was in their base 3-4 for 31.3% of their snaps last year. That is a high percentage of base defense for today's NFL. League average is just 24%. As for the Steelers nickel package, they utilized this grouping just under 40% of the time. That sounds like a lot, but the league average in 2020 was 59%. The Steelers played dime on 17.3% of their snaps, which is about 4% more than league average. But what stands out more than those numbers is that Pittsburgh was in "Other" (not base, nickel or dime) 11.7% of the time-only the Patriots at 19.3% were higher.
What that means, is like everyone, Pittsburgh played some snaps of goal line defense with very heavy personnel. But what it really tells us is that the Steelers defense played a very high percentage of defensive snaps with more than six defensive backs on the field. That might have been a result of, first the Bush injury, and then not having depth at the position required in a specific game or moment. Who is to say how quickly Johnson, who should play a ton of preseason snaps, acclimates, but he has a chance to really help that situation by giving the Steelers another young talented option as well as being a foundational special teams player in 2021.