As camp nears, we look at another position that could be up for grabs once camp starts. We've already taken a look at the battles that will ensue at cornerback and 3rd WR but the competition at linebacker could be the most entertaining. Not only is this a battle to play linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers but it includes a first round pick that contributed very little his rookie season and a seasoned veteran whose started over 70 consecutive games, including a Super Bowl. In the end the coaching staff could be faced with another question of experience or potential.
The Incumbent Starter: Larry Foote has to be considered a major success story as far as Steelers second day draft picks are concerned. A fourth round pick in 2002, he became a starter his third season in the league and has started over 70 consecutive games since then. The Steelers thought enough of Foote to let Kendrell Bell walk after several injury plagued seasons (quite a wise move on their part) and he's rewarded them with a handful of productive years. During those four seasons he's averaged just over 85 tackles and over 3 sacks a season while playing beside James Farrior. Foote's entering his seventh season in the league but he's still only 28 years old. He's also a team leader and a solid presence in the locker room. While he's not an overly athletic guy or a guy who will ever get Pro Bowl consideration but he simply gets the job done. He's an outstanding tackler and has great instincts thanks to endless film study. His instincts and study though don't always make up for his lack of athleticism. He's basically a two down linebacker who excels at stopping the run but can be exploited in passing situations. He's extremely durable though and hasn't missed a game since his rookie season (2002). If Foote does lose the starting job, he'll likely star on special teams in 2008 but the real question will come in 2009 when he' s in the final year of his deal.
The Challenger: Most Steelers fans weren't thrilled with the selection of Lawrence Timmons in the first round last year but there is hope now that he'll become of the most athletic inside backers that Pittsburgh has ever seen. He was incredibly raw coming out of Florida State (only started one season as a junior) so it shouldn't have been a big surprise that his rookie season a slow one. He had to deal with injuries during the summer and training camp and he was having to learn a new position. He's still one of the youngest players on the team (only Gary Russell and Mendenhall are younger) considering that he just turned 22 two months ago. What he lacks in experience though he certainly makes up for with athleticism. He's by far the fast linebacker on the roster and by most accounts has already won the starting job on the dime defense. His ability to turn and run with a running back or tight end should be a thing of beauty this season. He also adds a serious pass rush threat any time he's on the field. If Timmons does win the starting 'Mack' job, it would set up an intesting situation next season and could go a long way to determining if Farrior is signed to another deal.
The good news is that the Steelers seem to have two very capable guys battling for a spot that will have a huge impact on the defense. Whoever wins the job will rack up tackles and makes plays all over the field. In the end, I'd imagine that Timmons' potential will beat out Foote's experience. Foote will put up a fight but a team can't leave a first round pick on the bench for very long. He'll be the top backup at both inside backers and will likely still see plenty of playing time, especially on special teams. Thoughts? Has Foote started his last game? What should the Steelers do in 2009 if Timmons is a beast this year?