Sometimes in the NFL, players come to view contract amounts equaling team respect, want and expectation. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, this is isn't always the case.
In the case of inside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, the team's handling of his situation this off-season left him looking like little more than an afterthought. However, recent comments by linebackers coach Keith Butler to ESPN Radio 970 speak to the contrary.
"Stevenson Sylvester we think can be a good third for us right now."
Sylvester's rookie contract declared him to be a restricted free-agent in 2013, but he wasn't the only one. The Steelers tendered RFA offers to running backs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer. They also tendered an offer to nose tackle Steve McLendon, but later offered him a 3-year contract which he signed. Emmanuel Sanders received an offer, which he parlayed into almost double his RFA amount through the New England Patriots.
Sylvester received no tender offer, just a hard refusal from the Steelers who allowed him to become an unrestricted free-agent. They later signed him to a one-year deal at an amount much lower than a minimum RFA level would have dictated.
Sylvester was a fifth round draft pick in 2010, and the team could have used the minimum RFA tender to require a similar draft choice in exchange should someone try to steal Sylvester away. Dwyer was a sixth-round selection, and was protected. Sylvester had been a rare consistency on special teams in his three years of service and was worth compensation of a round higher, yet he was not deemed a loss-risk by the Steelers. It can be further speculated his release and re-signing were just parts of a plan.
However, Butler's comments would now imply the team expects Sylvester to be the primary reserve behind Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote. Rumors began swirling during OTAs when Sylvester began taking snaps at outside linebacker about him possibly changing positions. Butler insists the team thinks he can play all four linebacker positions, and they want him to be prepared in case they need depth. Timmons often found himself displaced to the right outside spot to take James Harrison's spot during injury absences.
Sylvester has some tough competitors in Marshall McFadden who is consistently drawing praise from on-lookers at training camp and rookie Vince Williams for a roster spot at inside linebacker, but the team's expectation for him to backup the outside spots also reduces chances for young guys like Adrian Robinson, Chris Carter and Alan Baxter to earn jobs as well.
If Sylvester can clear the high bar the Steelers set for him, he may earn a new contract next season worth more than just league minimum. If he fails, he will probably be allowed to walk for good; especially if Sean Spence is healthy as expected.
Either way, Sylvester will have his work cut out for him, even if his contract suggests he's not important while his coaches swear he is.
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