The Pittsburgh Steelers may not have re-invited Brandon Johnson back to training camp this season, but evidently there is something about him the team will miss. Johnson was position flexible.
The Steelers have become big on flexibility over the years, asking offensive linemen to swap between tackle and guard, tight ends to moonlight as fullbacks and slashes to stand in as quarterbacks. However, the team rarely asks inside linebackers and outside linebackers to interchange.
Several times in his career, Lawrence Timmons has been asked to move to an outside position, when James Harrison was unable to play due to injury. However, Timmons' shifts were usually supported by the presence of James Farrior as a co-starter, and Larry Foote waiting on the bench. With Farrior now retired and Foote no longer just a reserve, Timmons days of moving outside have come to an end.
Last year, a season-ending injury to Sean Spence combined with the slow recoveries of Harrison and his 2013 replacement Jason Worilds, led the team to retain the services of Brandon Johnson due to his ability to play both interior and exterior linebacker positions while only taking up one roster spot. Johnson also chipped in on special teams, validating his employment even more.
In 2013, Johnson will not be given the opportunity to reclaim his job, but the team is giving another long-shot player the opportunity to be Johnson.
According to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Stevenson Sylvester is being asked to make the transition to outside linebacker, after spending his first three years in Pittsburgh's interior. Sylvester is open to, willing and ready for the challenge which awaits him when training camp opens in late July, although admittedly even he isn't sure why the team is asking him to make the move.
"I am just doing whatever they tell me. If they want me to go outside, I’ll go outside. If they want me to go inside, I’ll go inside."
"I am still learning. I have a lot of friends that play outside linebacker – I train with Paul Kruger in Utah in offseason. I am learning a lot of different stuff from a lot of different people and just from watching film. LaMarr Woodley and even James Harrison from the past helped me and even Chris Carter and Jason Worilds – they have amazing first steps and I am trying to learn that."
According to Sylvester, he hasn't taken many snaps inside during OTAs. Moreover, Sylvester almost wasn't even a member of the team this year - he was scheduled to be a restricted free-agent, like teammates Emmanuel Sanders, Steve McLendon and Jonathan Dwyer, but the Steelers did not offer him a qualifying tender and released him instead. That allowed Sylvester to become an unrestricted free agent, and when he never signed with another team, Pittsburgh re-signed him for a cheaper contract than his RFA tender would have demanded.
As the off-season has rolled along, one name keeps popping into the ears of those following the team -- Marshall McFadden. McFadden, an NFL sophomore, has made huge strides from his rookie season. He returned to rookie orientation for mental preparation, and has appeared strong and able during practices in shorts. He is considered able to play both the Mack and Buck interior responsibilities, which will make his roster spot even more valuable.
Spence may believe he will be able to play in 2013, but he will not be playing anytime in the immediate future. If McFadden is a leading candidate to make the team behind Foote and Timmons, and Sylvester is moving outside; the team must feel extremely confident in either free-agent signing Brian Rolle, or sixth-round draft pick Vince Williams. Williams makes the most sense, as he fits the more traditional physical Buck template, allowing McFadden to be a Mack, which he might be better suited to athletically.
If the team feels confident Williams and McFadden will be their primary reserves, then moving Sylvester outside seems to be a last chance to earn a job; although he's not the only outside linebacker who could find himself on the outside looking in, in the end.
Awaiting Sylvester outside are entrenched veterans LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds. First-round draft choice Jarvis Jones will make the team, although the preseason will determine where he fits in the depth chart. If the team enters the regular season with nine linebackers, as usually is the case, there would be only two spots remaining open for competition behind those mentioned already. Sylvester will be competing for one of those two vacancies against Chris Carter and Adrian Robinson.
The oft-injured Carter opened the 2012 season as the right outside starter, however he soon faded to the bench as Worilds and Harrison both returned. Carter ended the season on injured reserve. He has yet to live up to his potential, and could be on thin ice having already tested Pittsburgh's patience.
Robinson developed a bit of a cult following last preseason, eventually earning himself a roster spot (which he maintained all season), although he spent most his rookie year riding the pine. The coaching staff has been patiently waiting to see how far he has progressed in his second year after signing with the team as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2012. The biggest advantage Robinson will hold over Carter and Sylvester will be the fact he is still primarily an unknown with high potential. The team already knows what it has in Carter and Sylvester, and neither have been able to earn promotion outside of injuries to teammates.
Robinson may end up winning the fourth outside linebacker roster spot, but Sylvester still stands a strong chance of unseating Carter. Sylvester would provide depth both inside and out, not to mention special teams, which has been his specialty during his short career in Pittsburgh. At least Sylvester has been noticeably impressive at something, which is more than can be said for Carter, so far.
All linebackers now stand ready and healthy, patiently waiting for camp to begin, but the roster spots will go to those who stand out and above the rest.
Upholding the standard is kind of a big deal in Steeler Country.