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2014 Steelers season scenarios: LB Sean Spence plays 500 snaps

Caught in the celebration of seeing the new No. 51 on the field is the reason the Steelers drafted Sean Spence in the third round of the 2012 draft. If he's healthy, he may be talented enough to be a main contributor to the Steelers' linebackers group this year.

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Scenario: Steelers third-year linebacker Sean Spence will play 500 or more snaps in 2014.

Why it will happen: Lost in the celebration of his incredible comeback, overcoming a significant knee injury that's held him out of the last two regular seasons, is the reason the Steelers selected Spence in the first place - athleticism. What Spence lacks in size he makes up for in speed, both in his legs as well as his mind. He's smart enough of a player where he can gain speed by being able to anticipate the play as well as movement from the offense during the play.

That gives him value as a player and his versatility as an athletic short-field zone defender could make him a key player in sub coverage packages.

Add in the possibility Spence plays a significant role on special teams it's easy to see how he could play 500 snaps, and with it, likely win the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award, as well as the Steelers' nomination for the Ed Block Courage Award.

Why it won't happen: His intelligence and athleticism will help him neutralize his less-than-superior size disadvantage and become a productive sub-package linebacker. But that's exactly the key. In order for Spence to get on the field often enough to see 500 snaps (for comparison, Vince Williams played 400 snaps last season), he's going to have to show he can play in the team's base defense as well as subs. In other words, he's going to have to show he can stop the run as well as cover receivers in space.

While it wouldn't necessarily mean Spence is a liability against the run, the Steelers' depth is enough to suggest they could keep a fairly regular rotation of players coming in and out - even veteran stalwart Lawrence Timmons might see a reduction in snaps just for the sake of keeping him fresh for later in the season.

He may fall around the 400 snap mark like WIlliams did last year because he could be used in a similar role; but in on passing downs instead of running downs. That appears to be his highest and best use, provided he is back all the way from his injury.

If he isn't, that would be the main reason why he doesn't play an average of 32 snaps a game.

Keys: It will come down to how well-rounded of a player he can be. Logging that many snaps really will only happen if he's capable of playing on all three downs, which may or may not happen based on several things, not just his ability or his health. The team may simply want to only play him in sub packages, or they may only want to play him 10-15 snaps a game early in the season.

Injuries will play a key role here too. If Timmons, Williams or Ryan Shazier are injured, that's more snaps to rotate around the remaining group.

It's an interesting benchmark, one that really can't be seen as a failure if he doesn't reach, but Spence seems right on track to make an impact this season, even if it isn't with a significant amount of playing time.