With the Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 season in the books, we will shift our attention to the off-season. We will review each position group for the Steelers, and look into how it may change going from 2016 to 2017. For this edition, we will look at the linebackers.
Pittsburgh Steelers Positional Overview: Linebacker
On the inside, the Steelers started with Lawrence Timmons next to Ryan Shazier, and they finished that way. Shazier missed four games in the middle of the year, however, and he has now missed at least four games in every season in his NFL career. With that being said, after only being active for four games in his rookie season, he has played in 12 games each of the last two years. Shazier posted almost identical numbers from 2015, in terms of tackles, and sacks. But, he did go from one interception to three, and five passes defended to nine. Shazier may have sen the increase in pass coverage stats because Timmons was being used less in coverage. After being burnt early by Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder, Timmons was kept in the box much more often. Timmons finished the year with 114 tackles.
On the outside, the team did a lot of shifting. Jarvis Jones entered his contract season, and was given a shot as the starter. Jones started nine games, but with just one sack and a better reputation as a coverage linebacker, he was finally benched after their week nine loss to the Cowboys, in favour of old reliable, James Harrison. Jones was drafted to replace Harrison, but it was the forever young 38-year old Harrison replacing Jones four years later instead. Harrison started the last seven games and put up five sacks.
Across from Jones, it was Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats rotating in. Chickillo finished with seven starts, Moats with five games. Combined, the two recorded six sacks last season. Those two were given the starting nod because of an injury to Bud Dupree. Dupree missed most of the season with a hernia, but came back for the last four games of the season. Over that time, he put up 4.5 sacks, which was more than Moats or Chickillo put up individually in sixteen games. When Harrison and Dupree started together, the Steelers did not lose a regular season game, and went 2-1 in the playoffs.
2017 brings question marks on the inside and out. On the inside, the questions come with replacing Timmons. Timmons signed with the Miami Dolphins, and he obviously leaves a hole in the unit. Vince Williams was given an extension in 2016 and will have every chance to be named the starter moving forward. However, with Shazier missing time every season, and Williams bringing 17 career starts in four seasons, it could bring some skepticism about where the position is. Tyler Matakevich, Steve Johnson and L.J. Fort are on the roster, but all three are special teams contributors at the moment.
On the outside, the Steelers chose to bring back Harrison before Timmons. Harrison is back on a two-year deal, and will once again lead the Steelers pass rushers. The hopes are that Dupree can be healthy and in year three can take over the reigns, but it will be across from Harrison. Chickillo and Moats are signed but like the inside depth guys both are better on special teams than on the defense, and neither are locked into a roster spot at the moment. Jarvis Jones is currently a free agent, but with the four year player posting six career sacks it is extremely likely that he will not be back.
The Steelers will likely draft both positions, and they will likely hit both early. Inside linebacker may have the bigger question in terms of current starters, but when looking forward, the question of who will replace James Harrison is still the biggest. The Steelers met with 57 players at the NFL combine, and 15, or a little over a quarter of them happen to play linebacker. The majority of them were pass rushers, and it can clue you into the fact that the Steelers are more comfortable with Williams, and less comfortable with who can replace Harrison.
This suggests that the Steelers will hit pass rusher first, and they may hit the position multiple times in the 2017 NFL draft. Mike Tomlin was recently at the Pro Day of Carl Lawson, and the following day Lawson felt confident that he would be a first round pick. It may be digging a bit too deep, but it is safe to say that the Steelers do have interest in Lawson. Other players the Steelers met with include Charles Harris, T.J. Watt, Tim Williams, Derek Rivers, Tak McKinley, and many more.
The Steelers met with Haason Reddick, a former defensive end who should fit into the NFL as an off-ball linebacker. However, after a terrific performance at the Senior Bowl and combine, he may have shot himself out of their reach. This may cause the team to wait until the middle rounds to address that position. Either way, it seems likely that the team will bring in at least two new linebackers from the NFL draft, and could bring in as many as three fresh faces.