Players will be leaving everything on the field tonight when the Pittsburgh Steelers invade the home of the Carolina Panthers to close the preseason, none more so than the linebackers.
Roster projections have pinned the Steelers to keeping between eight and ten linebackers, leaving the mean of nine to be the goal if the law of averages holds true. If Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote are the team's starters on the inside, and LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds and first-round pick Jarvis Jones are considered locks on the outside, then there are only four spots open for debate. Second-year rookie Marshall McFadden has appeared to be the best of the rest and seems poised to make the active roster as well, knocking the open seat count down to three; but which three will it be.
Veteran Chris Carter would seemingly be next in line, although he has stood out on special teams more than he has on defense during his time in Pittsburgh. He began the 2012 season as the right outside starter while Worilds and James Harrison recovered from injuries; but once they returned he disappeared, eventually ending his season on injured reserve. The Steelers may choose to keep him as an experienced fourth OLB, but the young men behind him are making it difficult.
On the inside, the Steelers added former Philadelphia Eagles starter Brian Rolle and San Diego Chargers contributor Kion Wilson to their off-season roster. Both have played very well on the interior, but Wilson has played better on special teams. Rolle's difficulty with special teams played a part in his release from the Eagles originally.
Even the Steelers rookies have shot under par for the preseason. Sixth-rounder Vince Williams currently holds the second left inside spot behind Foote. Alan Baxter joins McFadden as young LBs to remind on-lookers of a young Harrison. Even late addition Terence Garvin has made his presence known. If Garvin holds any advantage over his peers, it is the fact he has taken snaps inside and out, and also played safety during his days at West Virginia University. Unfortunately for Garvin, Stevenson Sylvester had also taken snaps at multiple LB positions. Sylvester was released following the third week of the preseason.
Wilson, Baxter, Williams and Garvin are the only backers with practice squad eligibility remaining who aren't already being considered locks for the roster. Baxter has stood out with his pass rush ability, but a season on the scout team to add size and strength to his skill set wouldn't hurt. Williams has progressed nicely in pass coverage, but is not exactly polished yet. The problem with putting players on the practice squad is they have to be released first, giving other teams seeking fresh talent the opportunity to sign them away.
One great play could carry someone to the front of the line. One mistake could cause a player's stock to plummet with no time remaining to make amends. If the team keeps only nine LBs total, and a maximum of two on the practice squad, then every snap against the Panthers will be critical for each player to state their case.
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