Pittsburgh Steelers: Larry Foote

PITTSBURGH -- ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski recently ranked all of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is sixth on his list after Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck.

"Jaws" performed his usual exhaustive film review in compiling his list, and he offered strong praise for Roethlisberger as well as an astonishing statistic:
I thought Big Ben had one of his best seasons in 2013. We all know he has a unique skill set, with the ability to be a pocket passer but also extend the play when it's necessary. Ultimately, there are two sets of numbers that stand out to me for Roethlisberger. The first is that he has 156 career starts and has won 67 percent of them. That's astonishing. The second is that veteran quarterbacks understand the necessity of coming away with touchdowns and not field goals in the red zone. In the last two seasons, Roethlisberger has 27 TDs and zero INTs inside the 20-yard line."

You can debate where Roethlisberger ranks among NFL quarterback but one thing that can't be disputed: Big Ben is the player the Steeler can least afford to lose for an extended period in 2014.

The 11th-year veteran makes the no-huddle attack go and that will again be an important component of the Steelers' offense. Roethlisberger, who turned 32 in March, is still playing at a high level and he is coming off a season in which he took every snap. Bruce Gradkowski is a capable backup but nothing would help the Steelers more as they try to return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus than if Gradkowski spends most if not all of the upcoming season on the sidelines.

Here are four other players whom the Steelers cannot afford to lose this season.

WR Antonio Brown: The Steelers' wide receivers become average if Brown is sidelined by a significant injury. The reigning Steelers MVP caught 110 passes for a team-record 1,499 yards last season and he will again make the other wideouts better simply because of the attention he commands from opposing defenses.

C Maurkice Pouncey: The Steelers got lucky that Fernando Velasco and later Cody Wallace played so capably at center after Pouncey tore his ACL eight plays into last season. They cannot count on that fortune again if Pouncey goes down. The three-time Pro Bowler is the unquestioned leader of the offensive line, and he is eager to reward the Steelers for the lucrative contract extension they gave him last month.

LB Lawrence Timmons: Durable and incredibly productive, Timmons should have at least one Pro Bowl on his resume by now. He will call the defense until rookie Ryan Shazier is ready to assume that responsibility. Simply getting lined up properly proved to be a problem for the defense after Larry Foote went down in the 2013 opener with a season-ending arm injury.

DE Cameron Heyward: The 2011 first-round pick is the one proven commodity that the Steelers have at defensive end. Heyward pushed his way into the starting lineup after the fourth game of last season, and he led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures in 2013 and tied for the team lead with five sacks. To say there is a significant drop-off after Heyward at defensive end is an understatement.
PITTSBURGH -- He still uses his GPS to make his way around Pittsburgh, but rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier didn’t need nearly as much navigational assistance when he was on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice fields in late May and June.

Shazier started alongside Lawrence Timmons from the outset of offseason practices, and he looked anything but lost despite learning a new defense on the run.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Joe Sargent/Getty ImagesRookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was a star in minicamp, but will his progress continue when the pads come on?
“He understands concepts very well,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said of the Steelers’ first-round draft pick. “He reminds me a lot of Larry Foote in terms of football intelligence, and he’s a very sharp guy.”

Not that Shazier will be exempt from the requisite rookie growing pains. Or that Butler wouldn’t prefer the Steelers easing the former Ohio State All-American into the NFL.

That is not an option in large part because Shazier’s speed and playmaking ability are both badly needed on a defense that slipped appreciably last season. Shazier, the Steelers’ most significant addition during the offseason, made it look easy at times during offseason practices. He turned in a couple of breathtaking plays, including a leaping interception of a pass that backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski thought he could throw over Shazier in the middle of the field.

The caveat with how good Shazier has looked: the 6-1, 237-pounder has only practiced with the Steelers in shorts. That changes Monday, when the Steelers don the pads at training camp following two non-contact practices.

If Shazier makes the same kind of progress at camp as he did during offseason drills he will start Sept. 7 in the season opener against the visiting Browns.

Here are the four other significant additions that the Steelers made during the offseason.

Offensive line coach Mike Munchak. The Steelers have too often fielded suspect offensive lines under coach Mike Tomlin, though constant injuries up front haven’t helped. A line that came together in the second half of last season will start a pair of former first-round draft picks and two second-round selections. Nobody is more qualified to bring the group together then Munchak. There are no excuses this season -- unless mass injuries consistently scramble the line.

S Mike Mitchell. As with Shazier, the Steelers added speed and a playmaker when they signed Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million contract in March. They badly needed both elements on the back end of their defense, and Mitchell will be a significant upgrade over Ryan Clark at free safety. He has aspirations of becoming one of the best safeties in the NFL, and the Steelers would love to see Mitchell achieve that goal in Pittsburgh.

RB/WR Dri Archer. The Steelers added a bolt of lightning to their offense when they drafted the ultra-fast Archer in the third round. He will return kickoffs and could allow the Steelers to relieve Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown of his duties as the primary punt returner. Archer’s speed and versatility gives offensive coordinator Todd Haley the kind of player he can use to exploit mismatches. If Archer is Chris Rainey 2.0 the Steelers will be more than happy with the investment they have made in the former Kent State star.

OLB Arthur Moats. The former Buffalo Bill has starting experience and versatility and gives the Steelers a promising option should there be injuries or ineffective play at outside linebacker. Moats can also play inside, though the Steelers are pretty deep there, and he is expected to establish himself as a core special-teams player. The importance of depth in the NFL can't be overstated, and the Steelers improved themselves in that area with the signing of Moats.
This is the latest Pittsburgh Steelers' mailbag. If you have a question for the pre-training camp mailbag that will run Friday, the day the Steelers report to St. Vincent College in Latrobe, please send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with the #steelersmail.

And away we go... @ScottBrown_ESPN: There is no question the Steelers' situation at running back is much more promising going into this season. Le'Veon Bell, for one, should be better after starting 13 games as a rookie in 2013 and getting used to the speed of the game at this level. Just as significant is the Steelers are much better equipped to deal with an injury to Bell as LeGarrette Blount has proven he can be an effective workhorse. If Bell and Blount stay healthy, they should make for a nice 1-2 punch at running back. Rookie Dri Archer complements the two with his explosive speed, and his versatility should allow offensive coordinator Todd Haley to be creative in using the third-round draft pick. I'm real curious to see how the Steelers divvy up the touches among their three running backs. And I'm hard-pressed to think of a position where the Steelers have done more to improve themselves, at least on paper.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: The speculation about Harrison re-signing with the Steelers has been fueled almost entirely by Harrison himself -- and the perceived need that the Steelers have at outside linebacker. The former five-time Pro Bowler made no secret of his desire to return to Pittsburgh during the offseason, and I don't think it has been ruled out by the Steelers. I would not, however, expect anything to happen on that front before the start of training camp. The Steelers want to see what they have at outside linebacker in Latrobe, and the reality that they have gotten younger at defense doesn't bode well for Harrison coming back for a second stint with the team. One injury at a position where the Steelers are not particularly deep could change everything and lead to Harrison donning the black and gold again.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: Don't forget about Jerry Olsavsky, who is entering his fifth season with the Steelers and reportedly drew consideration from the Buffalo Bills when they had an opening for a linebackers coach. I would think Olsavsky is next in line if and when current linebackers coach Keith Butler succeeds Dick LeBeau as the Steelers' defensive coordinator. That said, Joey Porter is very serious about coaching and making a career out of it. This is not a case of a former player taking a shot at coaching as he tries to figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Porter's passion and willingness to learn from the rest of the coaches' on the Steelers' staff could put him on a fast track. And former Steelers linebacker Larry Foote has said he thinks Porter could be a head coach in the NFL one day. The Steelers would love nothing more than for Porter to rise through the coaching ranks in Pittsburgh, but it will require patience on his part.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: I'm tempted to say Ryan Shazier because I think the first-round pick could emerge as a real playmaker on defense. Whether Shazier has the nastiness that defined the players you mentioned, however, remains to be seen. Defensive end Cameron Heyward, as outgoing as he is away from the field, seems to have that in him, and I think he is going to assume a real leadership role this season. It wouldn't surprise me a bit, in fact, if Heyward's teammates vote him a captain. The former first-round pick is well aware of the Steelers' history and how rooted it is in hard-hitting defense. Heyward also knows the Steelers have to re-establish that fear factor on defense, and he is in a position to help them do so after breaking out with five sacks and 31 quarterback pressures last season.

@ScottBrown_ESPN: That is a great question and perhaps the biggest one I have when it comes to the Steelers' backfield. Are there going to be enough carries to keep both Bell and Blount happy and make Archer a viable threat in the offense and not just a gimmick? It is easy in May and June to envision all kind of scenarios in which the Steelers get their three running backs involved in the offense. But the reality is the Steelers averaged just under 64 plays per game in 2013 and this has increasingly become a passing league. My concerns with the Steelers keeping their top two running backs happy are tempered by the fast friendship formed by Bell and Blount, as well as the former's versatility. Bell can be utilized as a weapon in the passing game and his receiving skills could allow the Steelers to play him and Blount and at the same time in different packages. I think Blount should get around eight carries per game but that could mean four to five one week and 10-12 the next. 
Next in a series that looks at every position on offense and defense with training camp approaching, we take a look at the Steelers' inside linebackers.

Returning starter: Lawrence Timmons. This became his group after Larry Foote went down with a ruptured bicep in the 2013 opener and Timmons responded with another Pro Bowl-caliber season. The former first-round pick led the Steelers with 126 tackles, and he also recorded three sacks and tied for the team lead with two interceptions.

New faces: Ryan Shazier. The Steelers drafted Shazier in the first round over a cornerback because they felt they were getting one of the best defensive playmakers in the draft. He opened offseason practices as the starter at weakside inside linebacker and the position will be his to lose at training camp.

On the bubble: Terence Garvin. The West Virginia product made the team last season as an undrafted free agent and played in all 15 games before missing the final contest with a knee injury. Garvin shined on special teams and played on passing downs later in the season. But he may be the odd man out at a position where the Steelers have a crowd if Sean Spence's knee holds up during training camp.

By the numbers: Shazier led the Big Ten with 143 tackles and 22.5 tackles for losses last season. He is one of only 10 Ohio State players to lead the Buckeyes in tackles in consecutive seasons

Did you know: All three times the Steelers have had the No. 15 pick in the NFL draft they have used it on a linebacker. Prior to Shazier they picked Timmons (2007) and Huey Richardson (1991).

Quotable: “I love Ryan. He’s a great kid. He loves this game of football, very dedicated to it. When he first got here I told him, 'Ninety-four (Timmons), man. Just follow him around everywhere you can. Ask all of the questions you can.’ He’s a playmaker. Everybody likes him and he’s going to make a lot of plays for us this year.” – outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, the Steelers’ 2013 first-round pick, on Shazier.

Outlook: The Steelers turned a position that had been a bit of a question mark into a strength by drafting Shazier. The 6-1, 237-pounder improves their team speed and gives defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau a versatile playmaker that he can move around. Shazier, assuming he plays as well in pads as he did during offseason practices, will start alongside Timmons in the season opener and eventually assume the defensive playcalling duties. Vince Williams, who started 11 games last season at weakside inside linebacker, gives the Steelers a quality reserve. More depth could come from Spence if the former third-round pick makes it all the way back from a career-threatening knee injury.
PITTSBURGH -- Larry Foote, a Michigan man through and through, is well aware the Steelers gave his No. 50 to rookie Ryan Shazier.

And that the Steelers’ first-round pick played his college ball at Ohio State.

“I didn’t like that Buckeye getting my number,” Foote said. “I was fired up.”

He was only half joking since the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is serious business, especially for those who took part in the annual gridiron feuds.

But Foote had little else to quibble about with the Steelers even though they released him in March when the seasoned veteran would not have counted much against the salary cap.

“I’m happy with the run I had there,” said Foote, who played inside linebacker for the Steelers from 2002-08 and 2010-13. “I was so fortunate. A lot of our core guys through those two championships we stayed together over a decade. It ran its course. I got two Super Bowls and Pittsburgh will always be my home. I’ll always be connected to the city.”

Foote, who signed a one-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals shortly after the Steelers released him, will be missed and remembered fondly.

One of the most popular players in the Steelers’ locker room, he also proved to be a productive and steadying force on a defense for which he started eight-plus seasons.

Not bad for a fourth-round draft pick.

Foote has embraced his new opportunity in Arizona, where he also will play in a 3-4 defense. And he had nothing but good things to say about Shazier, who has the inside track to start at Foote’s old position.

“I always get my Mel Kiper on around draft days and it looks like he’s going to be an excellent player,” Foote said. “I joked with the coaches, ‘Y’all got rid of the old [car] for a new Ferrari.’ He’s surrounded by some good coaches so I think he’ll be a good one. If he can get it upstairs and have that toughness I’m quite sure he’s going to be a player in this league for a long time.”
PITTSBURGH -- The player who dressed next to Joey Porter in the Steelers’ locker room and is still good friends with him doesn’t just predict success for Porter in coaching.

Larry Foote sees Porter going all the way to the top if he chooses to make a career out of coaching.

“I think he’s going to be a head coach in this league one day,” Foote told ESPN.com earlier this week. “I think he has that ‘it’ factor to be a head coach if he stays the course. He has an enthusiasm and excitement that you can’t teach, you can’t develop, you’ve just got to be born with it and I’m excited. Hopefully he grows from the coaching side, X's and O's, organization and stuff like that. But shoot, he’s on the fast track because he can lead men, he can get men to run through a wall.”

Porter has returned to Pittsburgh to do that and learn his new trade as a Steelers defensive assistant. Porter, who joined coach Mike Tomlin’s staff in February, has already shown the same kind of enthusiasm for coaching as he did for playing.

“He brings it every day like he’s a player and guys respect that," said Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who has become one of Porter's proteges. "When the linebackers hit the field you can see the energy and positivity and that’s what we need and that’s how we’re going to continue to get better.”

That comes as no surprise to Foote, who was teammates with Porter from 2002-06.

Foote signed with Arizona in March, and he has already heard plenty about Porter there. He said Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald told him that Porter is the best leader he has ever seen.

Porter spent two seasons with the Cardinals before retiring in 2012.

Fitzgerald’s praise only reaffirmed to Foote that Porter’s contributions in Pittsburgh transcend his 60 sacks in seven seasons, which rank fifth on the organization’s all-time list.

“Through my time in Pittsburgh there was no better leader,” said Foote, who played for the Steelers from 2002-08 and 2010-13. “He wasn’t on that second Super Bowl team [in 2008] but his imprint was still on that team and it still lives in that locker room a little bit.

“He is selfless, putting his team first and that just sets the tone for the team and the way he played week in and week out. He was an established Pro Bowl guy and he was hungry every week. He loved the game.”

Porter has transferred that love to coaching, and his enthusiasm as well as his expertise at playing outside linebacker and rushing the passer should only help players like Jones and Jason Worilds.

“That’s the thing about Joey, he has one speed,” Foote said. “The game is changing. You need coaches coming in with that energy. A lot of players can feed off the coaches’ energy and what a perfect guy to do it.”
PITTSBURGH -- This is the next in a series that takes a post-free agency, post-draft look at the all of the positions with the exception of quarterback.

Our seventh look is at the position the Pittsburgh Steelers addressed with the 15th overall pick in the draft.

Inside linebacker

Who is new: Ryan Shazier. The Steelers took the former Ohio State star with their first draft pick when most thought they should address cornerback in the first round.

Who is gone: Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester. Foote recently signed a one-year contract with the Cardinals, and Sylvester remains unsigned.

Returning starters: Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams. Timmons turned in another Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2013, leading the Steelers with 155 tackles and also registering three sacks and intercepting two passes. Timmons will set the defense as the strongside inside linebacker this season. Williams started 11 games as a rookie and made steady progress, but the 2013 sixth-round draft pick will have a hard time holding off Shazier because of the latter’s speed and ability to play in space.

Most significant addition: Shazier. The 6-1, 237-pounder adds speed and athleticism to the defense, and the Steelers will take advantage of both by moving Shazier all over the field. He should also help their pass rush and allow defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to get creative when drawing up blitzes. It will surprise no one if Shazier opens the season as a starter.

Most significant loss: Foote. The steady veteran started on the teams that played in three Super Bowls and won two of them from 2005-10. Foote, a locker-room favorite, set the defense, and his loss to an arm injury last season really hurt the Steelers. The organization, however, wanted to get younger at linebacker. That led to Foote’s release.

On outside looking in: Sean Spence. The 2012 third-round pick would have been a big part of the defense had he not suffered a career-threatening injury during a preseason game his rookie season. Spence has made incredible progress but his game is predicated on speed, so he has to show the Steelers his knee will hold up. They will give him every chance to do so in offseason practices and training camp.

Hidden number: One of the most productive players on the Steelers’ defense is also one of its most durable. Timmons has played in every game but two since the Steelers took him in the first round of the 2007 draft. The seventh-year veteran has started 53 consecutive regular-season games, the longest streak of any Steeler.

Outlook: A position that had some question marks looks a whole lot better, especially if Shazier is as good as advertised. He could team with Timmons to give the Steelers one of the better inside linebacker tandems in the league. Williams and Terence Garvin provide solid depth, and the Steelers get a bonus if Spence is able to contribute. They also drafted Jordan Zumwalt in the sixth round, and the former UCLA standout could provide depth at inside and outside linebacker.
PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Shazier posed with a No. 50 Steelers jersey presented to him by team president Art Rooney II Friday afternoon.

There was a potential problem and it had nothing to do with the shirt per se that Shazier and Rooney held up as photographers snapped pictures in the Steelers’ media room.

The No. 50, however, previously belonged to former Steelers linebacker Larry Foote.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteRyan Shazier started at Ohio State as a true freshman. Will he impress the Steelers enough this summer to start as a rookie?
Foote played his college ball at Michigan and Shazier is an Ohio State product.

The question, asked in a light vein, of whether he was OK taking a number that had been worn by a Michigan man left Shazier a tad flustered.

But what emerged from his latest stop in what has been a whirlwind since the Steelers made him the 15th overall pick of the draft is that Shazier has long been comfortable in whatever he is wearing.

That is especially true of his own skin.

Shazier overcame childhood taunts while growing up in South Florida, and he continues to have the last laugh over those who teased him when Alopecia, a condition in which the immune system attacks hair follicles, robbed him of his hair.

“I was probably the only little kid walking around with a bald head,” Shazier said. “It was tough because kids are mean. I just embraced it. I feel like if you didn’t like me for who I am, it’s a problem with you. I feel like it’s my signature now. I love having Alopecia. Having a bald head actually saves me a lot of money.”

Shazier will cost the Steelers a few bucks, especially if he comes anywhere close to living up the effusive praise that general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin lavished on him Thursday night.

Reaction to the Steelers picking Shazier has been mixed at best, and it has little to do with the player who piled up 143 tackles, including 22 for losses, and six sacks in 2013 and is only 21 years old.

Many fans wanted the Steelers to take a cornerback or wide receiver in the first round. When they went in a different direction some wondered why the Steelers didn’t try to trade down in the first round and still get Shazier.

There actually is a very good reason why the Steelers stayed where they were: the Cowboys were ready to pick Shazier if he made it past the Steelers.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Shazier, UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr, Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin had been targeted by Dallas for its first-round pick.

The Cowboys would have picked between Shazier and Martin but the Steelers did not provide them with that option, and they drafted Martin.

“My dad said that people were hinting to him that the Cowboys were going to draft me with the next pick,” Shazier said. “I’m happy that the Steelers drafted me. I can’t wait to go to Heinz Field and go out there and play in a Steelers jersey.”

The real work for Shazier starts next week when the Steelers hold rookie minicamp.

It will be the first look the Steelers get at Shazier and the rest of the first-year players on the field. And Shazier will be among those who feel utterly lost at times because the 6-foot-1, 237-pounder is learning a new and complex system.

But if Shazier, who played as a true freshman at Ohio State, makes steady progress during offseason practices he will go to training camp with a good chance of winning a starting job.

Such progress will start after his feet touch down and are back firmly planted on the ground.

“It’s just amazing to be in a great city like this with the greatest franchise,” Shazier said of getting drafted by the Steelers. “The plan is to come here and get a seventh [Super Bowl] trophy.”
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have nine picks in the 2014 NFL draft and this is the fourth in a series that looks at the nine positions they could address in less than two weeks. Keep in mind that the Steelers are likely to draft two cornerbacks so they may not take a player at every position covered in this series.

Our fourth look is at inside linebacker

Added: Arthur Moats

Lost: Larry Foote, Stevenson Sylvester (still an unsigned free agent)

Skinny: This is a tricky position to handicap because it’s tough to tell how former third-round pick Sean Spence fits into the Steelers’ plans. Spence has made tremendous progress from a career-threatening knee injury he sustained in August of 2012, but he may never be the player the Steelers thought they drafted two years ago. The Steelers are set at right inside linebacker with Lawrence Timmons but the starting spot opposite him could be wide open. Vince Williams started 11 games at left outside linebacker as a rookie but the Steelers may try to upgrade at the position. They could give Moats a look there even though he will initially play outside linebacker. Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is the only inside linebacker who would make sense for the Steelers in the first round. A couple of players who could interest them in the middle of the draft are UCLA’s Jordan Zumwalt, whom the Steelers hosted for a pre-draft visit, and Michigan State’s Max Bullough.

Draft likelihood: Medium to high

Extra points

Last ILB drafted by the Steelers: Williams, sixth round in 2013

Last ILB drafted by the Steelers in the first round: Timmons, 2007

Last ILB taken 15th overall in the draft: Brian Cushing, Texans, 2009

ILBs drafted under Kevin Colbert/Mike Tomlin: Five

ILBs drafted under Colbert/Tomlin still with the Steelers: Three
The Steelers had been quiet the past couple of weeks.

Then they slapped the transition tag on outside linebacker Jason Worilds Monday afternoon, just ahead of the 4 p.m. deadline to tag players. There has been a steady stream of activity since then, starting with Worilds signing the one-year, $9.754 million contract that came with the transition tag.

In the past two days the Steelers have signed four players -- they had yet to announce the Will Allen signing as of early Thursday morning -- and released three, including veteran linebacker Larry Foote.

Forget the first week of free agency -- players are allowed to start signing with new teams Tuesday at 4 p.m. -- when the NFL is abuzz with visits and player movement. The busy time for the Steelers when it comes to turning over and shaping their roster is often the week leading up to the start of free agency, and this year is no exception.

The Steelers already have made a flurry of moves, and more are coming as they try to clear enough room under the salary cap -- it will be $133 million in 2014 -- to sign free agents as well as their draft picks.

They are off to a good start as they have retained strong safety Troy Polamalu and tight end Heath Miller as well as their top pending free agent (Worilds) without compromising the core of their team or their finances.

The Steelers, according to ESPN's Roster Management System, are a shade over $133 million in regard to the salary cap, though that total doesn’t include Allen’s new deal because Pittsburgh has yet to make that official.

Allen likely signed for the veteran’s minimum ($955,000), a figure that can be reduced to a cap hit of $570,000 plus his signing bonus if it is a one-year contract and the bonus does not exceed $65,000.

However the numbers are crunched, the Steelers are almost in compliance with the 2014 salary cap, and they have gotten to that point without having to make any really tough cuts. More difficult decisions loom as they clear room under the 2014 cap, but so far, so good for the Steelers.

ESPN analyst Todd McShay will be unveiling his third mock draft later today.

Here are links to a couple of more mock drafts. Both Pete Prisco of CBS Sports and Doug Farrar of SI.com have the Steelers addressing the secondary with their first-round pick in May.

Countdown to combine: Steelers

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
PITTSBURGH -- With the NFL combine starting Wednesday in Indianapolis, we’re taking a look at positions of need and who the Pittsburgh Steelers might be looking at during the combine at those positions.

Position of need: Inside linebacker

The Steelers need depth at the position and possibly a long-term starter. Rookie Vince Williams started 11 games at left inside linebacker following the loss of Larry Foote in the 2013 season opener. Williams, a sixth-round draft pick, made steady improvement, but struggled in coverage. It is too early to tell whether he is a viable NFL starter in the mold of Foote, who stood out against the run, or is better suited as a reserve who is also a core special-teams player. Foote has one year left on his contract, but given his age -- the 12th-year veteran turns 34 in June -- and the fact that he is coming back from a ruptured bicep, there is no guarantee he returns for another season. Stevenson Sylvester will be an unrestricted free agent next month.

Three players the Steelers might be targeting

Chris Borland, Wisconsin: The Steelers, like most teams, should fall in love with his game tape. Borland made tackles all over the field at Wisconsin, racking up 416 stops during a career in which he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times. Borland burnished his reputation as a guy who can simply play at the Senior Bowl ,and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks the 5-foot-11, 245-pounder second among inside linebackers. Concerns about his height and short arms, which raise questions about whether he will struggle to shed blocks at the next level, could hurt Borland’s draft stock. Couple that with the belief many teams have that inside linebackers can be found later in the draft, and there is a good chance Borland will still be available when the Steelers pick in the second round.

Christian Kirksey, Iowa: Kirksey played outside linebacker in college, but he would likely move inside if drafted by a team that plays a 3-4 defense like the Steelers. Kirksey had an outstanding senior season -- he recorded 104 tackles despite getting overshadowed by teammates James Morris and Anthony Hitchens -- and he drew good reviews from his week at the Senior Bowl. The 6-2, 234-pounder has good size and athleticism, and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has raved about his character. Kirksey could be among the inside linebackers available to the Steelers in the middle rounds if they address other positions earlier in the draft.

C.J. Mosley, Alabama: The consensus All-American and possibly the most ready-made NFL player in the draft might not even get to the Steelers at No. 15 overall. The 6-2, 228-pound Mosley is a three-down linebacker who should make an immediate impact, if not start right away. The hunch here is that Mosely does make it past the first 14 picks with a handful of teams in front of the Steelers desperate for quarterbacks and the de-valuing of inside linebacker in the draft in general. If Mosley, who is expected to test well in all aspects at the combine, is available when the Steelers make their first-round pick, it will be very temping for them to take him and pair him with Lawrence Timmons. That, if Mosley is as good as advertised, would help the Steelers improve a run defense that allowed 125 yards per game in 2013.

Steelers' position outlook: ILB

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
PITTSBURGH -- This is the 1tth in a series in which I will examine every position relative to the 2013 season – and take a look ahead.

Inside linebackers

2014 free agents: Stevenson Sylvester

The good: Lawrence Timmons, the Steelers' best defensive player, turned in another Pro Bowl-caliber season. The seventh-year veteran led the Steelers with 155 tackles, and he had eight games in which he had at least 10 stops. Timmons is highly productive, durable – he has started 53 consecutive regular-season games – and he is the Steelers’ best linebacker in pass coverage. Timmons tied for the team lead in interceptions (two) and also had three sacks. Vince Williams showed promise as a run-stopper after a season-ending biceps injury sustained by Larry Foote forced the rookie to start 11 games.

The bad: The Steelers gave up 30 more rushing yard game than they did in 2012, and Williams’ on-the-job training certainly contributed to the precipitous drop in their run defense. Is he the long-term answer alongside Timmons? It’s too early to tell, and he projects as the third inside linebacker if Foote returns in 2014. As well as Timmons played, there were some games in which he did not show up as much, and the Steelers have to utilize his pass-rushing skills more.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Timmons’ cap hit is significant (a little over $11.8 million), and the Steelers may try to restructure his contract as he is due a base salary of $6.75 million in 2014. The Steelers could save $1.5 million by releasing Foote so there is no guarantee he returns for a 13th NFL season.

Draft priority: High. Inside linebacker could be in play with the Steelers’ 15th overall pick, especially if either Buffalo’s Khalil Mack or Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is still available or if both are still on board. The Steelers have more immediate needs on defense but it would be tempting for them to a take a linebacker to pair with Timmons, especially one who can make an impact if not start right away.
PITTSBURGH -- Here is the last in a series that takes a closer look at the Pittsburgh Steelers' most recent draft class with ESPN Insider and former NFL scout Matt Willamson providing his take on every player in it. I did not profile Landry Jones, the second of the Steelers’ two fourth-round picks, because he did not dress for a single game last season and again projects as the team’s No. 3 quarterback in 2014.

Vince Williams

Position: Linebacker

Drafted: Sixth round, 206th overall (taken one pick after Raiders defensive tackle Stacy McGee and one spot before Chiefs defensive end Mike Catapano).

Key stats: Williams recorded 53 tackles, eighth-most on the team.

His first season: No rookie provided more value for the Steelers than Williams, whom they took with the final pick in the sixth round. Thrust into the starting lineup a couple of games after left inside linebacker Larry Foote went down with a season-ending bicep injury in the opener, Williams made 11 starts and showed promise as a two-down linebacker.

Looking ahead: It is too early to tell whether Williams is a long-term starter at inside linebacker even though he played as well as the Steelers could have expected. The Florida State product made significant improvement stopping the run, but he also gave way to undrafted rookie Terence Garvin near the end of season on passing downs. Foote mentored Williams, and the Steelers would love if Williams can develop into a player of Foote's caliber, one whose forte is stopping the run and isn’t a liability in coverage. Williams could spend another season learning from Foote if the Steelers bring the 12th-year veteran back for one more season. At the very least the Steelers appear to have unearthed in Williams a player who can provide quality depth at inside linebacker and also contribute on special teams.

Williamson says: “Their defense is going to get shuffled up so much. They possibly could lose five or six starters with contract issues and age. I wonder if you just say, ‘OK, we like (Lawrence) Timmons a lot. Williams we like enough for you to be a two-down guy even though you weren’t great as a rookie, and we’ll use our picks on corners and defensive ends and another safety.’ I think ideally you’d love him to be your third inside linebacker. But I’m not sure they’ll have that luxury, and I can’t see them using a top two or three-round pick on an inside linebacker.”
PITTSBURGH -- Larry Foote told 93.7 The Fan on Monday that he hopes the Steelers find a way to keep both LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds.

But during his interview with the Pittsburgh radio station, the veteran inside linebacker also articulated, if unwittingly, why that won’t happen.

Foote, when asked about rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, said, “He has upside to him. He’s very explosive. He can move some linemen out of the way. He’s thirsty. He wants to learn, he wants to get better, he loves to play. Next year, if we’re going to be anything, we’re going to need him to make that big jump.”

That analysis is precisely why the Steelers have to make a choice between Woodley and Worilds.

Jones, the Steelers’ first-round draft pick last year, has to start next season and the Steelers don’t have the luxury of making a big investment in three outside linebackers.

Whether they will have a choice between Worilds and Woodley remains to be seen.

The former can become an unrestricted free agent on March 11 and Worilds’ timing couldn’t be any better.

Following three unremarkable seasons, Worilds broke out in 2013. He led the Steelers with eight sacks despite losing his starting job at right outside linebacker early in the season to Jones.

Worilds later reclaimed that job but he turned into a revelation after a calf injury sustained by Woodley provided an opening at left outside linebacker.

Woodley hasn’t been able to stay healthy since signing a six-year, $61.5 million contract in 2011, but it isn’t as simple as cutting ties with the seventh-year veteran and re-signing Worilds.

If the Steelers release Woodley before June 1 they will have to absorb a 2014 cap hit of just under $14.2 million.

If they release Woodley after that date they would save around $8.5 million in cap space. Of course that extra money won’t help them sign Worilds, who is second among outside linebackers on ESPN Insider Mike Sando’s list of 25 “must-sign” free agentsInsider and will have a new deal long before the start of June.

No question the biggest dilemma facing the Steelers is finding a way to keep Worilds and minimizing the cap hit they take for releasing Woodley. The other possibility for the Steelers is getting Woodley to accept a pay cut and taking their chances that he will stay healthy moving forward.

One thing that seems clear when it comes to Worilds and Woodley: It will be a case of one or the other for the Steelers.
PITTSBURGH -- Fans wondering what is ahead for the Pittsburgh Steelers are not the only ones.

"We've been calling around, shooting some text messages trying to figure out what's the move and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin and Mr. (Art) Rooney (II), I'm assuming right now they're just trying to figure this out because I haven't heard a peep about who's going to be back," veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote said on 93.7 The Fan on Wednesday. "Right now we don't know."

Foote said he hopes the Steelers don't "blow up" the roster since having a quarterback the caliber of Ben Roethlisberger gives them a chance to rebound from consecutive 8-8 seasons. But Foote is also realistic that turnover is inevitable given the age of some of the players on defense and the juggling the Steelers have to do in regard to the salary cap.

"I'm quite sure some big guys are going to have to take less money," Foote said. "(Brett) Keisel, I don't think he's going to get what he wants or what he deserves because we're pressed up against the cap. Ryan Clark will have to come back cheaper. They've got to understand it's not personal, it's the cap."

Keisel and Clark are both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on March 11. Clark has said he would sign elsewhere before accepting a drastic pay cut to return to the Steelers for a ninth season.

No matter what roster turnover takes place, Foote said he thinks the Steelers will enter next season as the favorites to win the AFC North because of the way they finished the 2013 season and they have Roethlisberger.

"We've got the best quarterback in our division -- hands down," Foote said.