FanPost

Playing the Hand You’re Dealt:  Linebackers

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I had this really colorful uncle. His nickname was Ben. Ben was the kind of uncle every guy needs coming of age. The kind of uncle who'll teach you about the important stuff in life: the ins and outs of a carbureted big block V8; unraveling the mysteries of the fairer sex; the finer points of drinking; and of course, how to play poker. And his voice still echoes across time any time I sit down at the poker table. There are two ‘lessons' that seem to come to mind more often than any others. The first is he'd say

‘Al? Play the cards you're dealt. Don't wish for cards. Play the cards in front of you. You'd be surprised what's been won on a pair of deuces'.

And the other one that's stuck up there between the ears and under the gray is he'd say:

‘Remember you're always playing against three things: you're playing against the man, you're playing against his cards, and you're playing against his money.'

Looking back now, I'd say it's all pretty good advice. No it's not likely to turn me into Doyle Brunson any time soon, but as approaches to the game go, it's pretty sound. Why? Because it makes two things clear: first, face your reality squarely and second, there will always be a lot things going on at once. Pay attention. The keys to success are keeping the first in mind and keeping a proper balance going for the second.

Over time I've actually found that his approach to cards works well in lots of places. It's a pretty neat trick to be able to pick out three or four of the most important features of whatever the challenge, and make sure they never leave your field of vision. It's an equally important skill to see things for what they are, as opposed to what you want to make them. And it struck me, as I've crawled the pages and comments of BehindTheSteelCurtain that the advice above could be usefully employed here to make a simple point in an ongoing debate: depth problem at outside linebacker? What depth problem? Why are we even discussing the return of James Harrison? Why are we worried about a depth problem? If you play the hand your dealt here, and you remember that there are two or three things to keep your eye on at once? I think you'll see that there's no depth problem. Depth problem? Sounds to me like somebody's wishing for cards.

Read a little further before you start arguing with me.

The way we're going to go about this is we're going to build ourselves a little chart. And this chart? It's going to demonstrate the two lessons from above: see what's in front of you for what it is and remember to first know, and then pay attention to the two or three things that are the most important. In other words, keep your priorities straight.

The first thing it seems to me to notice from the chart below is that there are fourteen names. That's right, there are fourteen linebackers on the Steeler roster as we stand. I've taken the liberty to do two things to get organized: first the list is sorted by weight. Second, because rookies have a special status, I've included their names in italics.

Name

Ht

Wt

Age

Vic So'oto

6'3"

263

26

Jason Worilds

6'2"

262

26

Vince Williams

6'1"

250

24

Arthur Moats

6'2"

250

26

Chris Carter

6'1"

248

25

NFL average:

6'2"

247

Jarvis Jones

6'2"

245

24

Dan Molls

6'0"

238

23

Howard Jones

6'4"

238

24

Ryan Shazier

6'1"

237

21

Jordan Zumwalt

6'4"

235

22

Lawrence Timmons

6'1"

234

28

Sean Spence

6'0"

231

24

Kion Wilson

6'0"

230

27

Terrance Garvin

6'3"

221

23

NFL Range:

5'10"-6'5"

220 - 270

Troy Polamolu

5'10"

207

Off the top, anyone hoping for a James Harrison return should probably start lighting candles now. Regardless of where you stand as a fan (and just so we're clear? I wear a Harrison jersey regularly), with an average age of just over 24 and 14 candidates in place now, Harrison would need to be two parts locker room leader and one part mentor to even have a chance. From what I can see from the sidelines, I just don't think those particular items are very high on his list of active ingredients. It is absolutely true that he can probably still bench press the front end of a Peterbuilt. And it is equally true that there are quarterbacks active in the league who, to this day, suffer from PTSD thanks to their close encounters with the guy Bill Cowher nicknamed Silver Back. And finally I don't deny that it's possible that James might still be more than capable of bringing big lumber rolling downhill. But Harrison is well across the Rubicon in this league, often known as Not For Long, and more importantly well outside of the way the Steelers do business. This is a franchise known for turning loose of linebackers with their fuel gauge still well above half in order to bring up the next generation. It is after all, how James Harrison got to be James Harrison, right? Bringing him back now is more about replaying that hand that has a 100 yard pick six in the Super Bowl, than it is about playing the 36 year old linebacker cards right here in front of you.

Here's what is possible: someone goes down for the season in training camp? Maybe .. and that's a big maybe. But even if someone were to go down anywhere else during the season, my guess is they'd call up someone from the practice squad before Deebo's phone rings.

Still with me? Give it another paragraph or three if for no other reason than it gives you more material for your comments.

So now, off the top, there are two rookies who need to come off the chart. Sure, it's possible they could make the 53. But it's not likely they're going to contribute anywhere except special teams. So let's put Zumwalt and Jones (Howard that is) on ice on the practice squad. That leaves me with an even dozen.

Now let's remove anyone that we're absolutely sure will always be designated as an inside linebacker. The list that results is below. But there's a bit more: I've subtracted rows but added three columns - three things that I think we need to pay attention to in deciding what we have and what it's worth. And in line with the poker lesson from above I've incorporated those ‘principles' in the column headings.

Name

Ht

Wt

Age

(‘The Man')

PFF Rating

(‘His cards')

Experience/Origin

("His Money')

Contract Status

Vic So'oto

6'3"

263

26

NEI

2/UDFA

1 year - $570K

Jason Worilds

6'2"

262

26

Good

3/2nd round

Transition Tag

Arthur Moats

6'2"

250

26

Average

3/6th round

I year -$795K

Chris Carter

6'1"

248

25

NEI

2/5th round

Yr 4 of 4 $2.2M

NFL average:

6'2"

247

Jarvis Jones

6'2"

245

24

Below Avg

1/1st round

rookie deal

Ryan Shazier

6'1"

237

21

NEI

rookie

rookie deal






NFL Range:

5'10" - 6'5" 220 - 270

Troy Polamolu

5'10"

207

Legitimately there are five names on the list. I kept Shazier because I think he will end up playing on the outside significant amounts of time this year. I think he'll wind up all over the place. But let's stick with the reasonable five for the moment.

His Money: Beyond Jarvis Jones? Everybody's in a contract year. Everybody! Moats was signed to a single year and Carter's in his last year. Do you think that's an accident? If the transition tagged Worild's wants to see more than one payday he's got to deliver the goods. Now. Should he have a mediocre year or falter altogether his market price will plummet. And So'oto? Minicamp fights aside, is in the same boat. Been around for a bit; bounced around for a bit; looking for a home and a payday. What's that all add up to? With the exception of Jarvis Jones it looks a lot like two or three dogs and one bone to me. And that equals motivation.

His Cards: Pedigree is an interesting feature. Worilds and Jones are high draft choices. Moats and Carter are not. So'oto is a walk on. There are some significant opportunities for the development of chips on shoulders here. And I might add: there's not as much distance between the first and the sixth round as one might think. Antonio Brown is proof positive of that. That distance can be bridged by things imagined (chips on shoulders) and things real (contract years). So the question now is can we get an Antonio Brown look alike to step up. Motivation again.

The Man: In five games for Green Bay last year So'oto registered one sack. ProFootBallFocus ranked Arthur Moats number one in tackling efficiency (32 solo, 10 assists with no misses). Carter was serviceable in replacing an injured James Harrison. But for the most part? They're all average (or Not Enough Information). Each one of these guys has one or two things that they can hang their hat on. Problem is, this year, they need to hang up a whole suit. Yep ... you got it ... motivation.

And as far as that Jarvis Jones guy goes? We got Joey Porter in his ear. And if that's not motivation I don't know what is.

If you've made it this far let's wrap this up. In years past the Steelers have carried four outside linebackers on their 53 man roster. This list contains five. At least four of that five have significant skin in the game this year. And I don't think the structure of the deals in place for the four of them is accidental. At least four of the five have demonstrated flashes of promise that make it more than possible that this is the year they move forward significantly. After all, they've got the motivation. It's more or less a matter of seeing it for what it is: the outside linebackers carried on the Steeler roster right now appear to have all of the pieces to be effective. Even more important: in this game it looks to me like you have to look forward and see James Harrison before he becomes James Harrison. Not backward trying to pick up what's left of him. You look forward, and bet that Lamar Woodley is just not coming back, not backward wishing that this is the year that he goes back to being what he used to be.

Finally there's individual play and there's unit play. Too often we look for the second coming of James Harrison or Joey Porter or Greg Lloyd or whoever. So what if Jones and Worilds only combine for 20 sacks this year? Can the deficit be made up by other contributors? Where are Cam Heyward's numbers? Does Shazier come up with anything? How about Timmons? In fact, isn't the return of Blitzburgh predicated on the idea that you don't know where it's coming from, or how we're going to bring it. You just know its coming. My point is simple: stellar performance need not always come from the outside linebacker position. What we need is for a group of guys with the necessary equipment and experience, committed to playing well; to pull their weight, to do their job.

Finally finally (no really this time) you may have noticed at the bottom of the chart I've included Troy's name. At which point you probably wondered what the hell was that for or you dismissed me as a total idiot. But since you've read this far let me explain that while I might be crazy I'm not stupid (and I win at poker more than I lose). Troy's name is there because as I'm sure you all remember Troy played linebacker for a significant part of the season last year after we lost Foote and figured out that we couldn't fill with what we had. Troy Polamalu, one of the greatest to ever play the game stepped up like so many of his predecessors to play a position that he was not designated to play (does the name Carnell Lake mean anything to you). It was one of those things that you just couldn't have predicted. Same as you can't predict whether one of the rookies will emerge and just rewrite everything above. It's one of those crazy things that helped us to that 6 and 2 mark in the second half of last season.

Because you know what? You'd be surprised what's been won on a pair of deuces.

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