clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Myths, problems and possibilities at outside linebacker for the Steelers

New, comments

There are very real needs at outside linebacker, but a look at the numbers and realities shows very real possibilities as well.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Part 1 - We Take Height and Weight Far Too Seriously

Name

Position

Height

Weight

Age

Went Pro

Draft Spot

Harrison, James

OLB

6'0"

242

36

2003

N/A

Worilds, Jason

OLB

6'2"

262

26

2010

2nd

Moats, Arthur

OLB

6'2"

250

26

2010

6th

Jones, Jarvis

OLB

6'2"

245

25

2013

1st

Nix, Roosevelt

OLB

5'11"

260

22

2014

7+

Lemon, Shawn

OLB

6'2"

250

26

2011/2015

7+

Jones, Howard

OLB

6'4"

238

24

2014

7+

Zumwalt, Jordan

OLB

6'4"

235

23

2014

6th

*All data taken from the roster listings at Steelers.com

This article focuses on the situation at outside linebacker, but it's worth taking a moment to look at the inside linebackers too - at least to the extent their statistics will help to dispel a few assumptions about size that I've seen bandied about BTSC during our draft discussions. Here are the numbers on those guys too:

Name

Position

Height

Weight

Age

Timmons, Lawrence

ILB

6'1"

234

28

Spence, Sean

ILB

5'11"

231

24

Williams, Vince

ILB

6'1"

250

25

Garvin, Terence

ILB

6'3"

221

24

Shazier, Ryan

ILB

6'1"

237

22

All this data reveals a few key facts that differ from the common wisdom. Fact #1: the average inside linebacker for the Steelers is 6'1" and weighs 235 pounds. Fact #2: the average outside linebacker is just shy of 6'2" and weighs 247 pounds. Fact #3: all those numbers hold up fairly well even if you remove the outliers such as Terence Garvin (extra small) and Jason Worilds (extra large). And thus you get to Fact #4: Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones are dead-average for their respective positions, while Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison are both a little undersized.

Surprised? I was until I did a quick reality check. I am 6'0" built more or less like a linebacker. I'd probably have weighed about 220-230 pounds if I'd ever gotten into football shape back in my 20's - maybe even 240 with modern training methods. I never got into that kind of shape, but I was a more than casual athlete and as such I can confidently say that the difference between a hypothetical me at 220 versus the same me bulked up to 240 would have been subtle at best. It's the 90:10 rule in action. The vast portion of the gain would be from getting into really good shape to begin with. The final touches beyond that might matter in some cosmic sense - they might be the difference between very good and almost great, for example - but those distinctions are very fine when you come right down to it. That isn't true, however, when you compare Person A to Person B. Two young men might weigh exactly the same and have identical muscle:bone:fat ratios, but still show vast differences in their functional strength, speed and power.

If you accept that premise, and you should because its true, it makes perfect sense that the same patterns would apply to dictate a relatively minor difference between one player who bulks up from 235 to 255 versus two different players regardless of their respective weights. Indeed it is entirely possible for the lighter man to actually be the stronger one too. Consider this: do you really think that Jason Worilds (262) is 10% stronger than James Harrison (240)?

The fact that we draftniks pay far too much attention to a dozen pounds here or there is one big takeaway from looking at the Pittsburgh roster. Another is that all the players really do fall into a fairly narrow band when it comes to body type. With the exception of James Harrison and Roosevelt Nix (your classic Mike Tyson-esque bowling balls), all of Pittsburgh's OLB's are built like a very bulked-up light heavyweight or a very slender heavyweight. So yes, the Steelers definitely look for a particular kind of physique, but no, within those broad parameters the team does not obsess about measurable details like weight. What matters is functional strength (for which pounds are not a viable proxy), usable speed, and the multiplying power of technique.

Just to get even more specific, the numbers make it entirely clear that the Steelers have no qualms about drafting young OLB prospects with a college playing weight in the low 230's - prospects such as Jarvis Jones, Howard Johnson, Jordan Zumwalt, and now Shawn Lemon all prove that. College size really doesn't matter if the player projects to be fast enough, strong enough, and talented enough once the NFL training takes hold.

Why have I made such a big deal about this? Newsflash: the much maligned prospect Vic Beasley is listed 6'3" and 235 pounds. Assuming you believe those numbers, which will be tested at the Combine, that makes him an inch shorter and just as heavy as fan favorites Jordan Zumwalt and Howard Jones from last year's draft but with an infinitely better resume. Beasley also has that ‘room to grow' feel if you look at the photos. In other words, he is emphatically not too small for the Steelers to draft and his physical size is not going to be the key to whether he can improve enough in run support to be a 3-down player. He certainly is and deserves to be on the Steelers Board as a possible pick at 1:22. The difference between a Beasley who weighs 235 and one who weighs 250 just isn't that big a deal. In fact there are a lot of prospects this year who don't fit the exact mold that pundits and fans would like to draw up... But more on that later.

Part 2 - There's Less On the Roster Than Meets the Eye

For the moment I'd like to move away from height and weight to address another clear pattern you can see in the OLB group. Youth. Once you remove James Harrison from the equation, Pittsburgh's OLB's average out at 24 years old. What does that mean? The positive slant would tell you it means our roster is going to improve over time. After all, Timmons is right in his peak at the ripe old age of 28, so you have to expect that 24 year-olds will only get better. Unfortunately, looking at player development by years alone creates an illusion. Yes, linebackers typically hit their peak between 27 and 32, but that's a self-selected statistic that excludes all the young prospects who busted out in their first five years after school. So it's fairer to say the Steelers OLB's have a lot of potential that they might grow into if - the big if - they have the talent to do so at all.

As the saying goes, saying someone has "Potential" also means "He's not yet proven a thing." So let's look at the OLB's on the roster - both the established ones and the newbies - and consider what that might mean for the Steelers' options in free agency and the draft. Because the bottom line is undeniable: the team desperately needs to improve its pass rush and won't be a genuine Super Bowl contender until it does.

Jason Worilds. Everyone seems to have very loud opinions about Mr. Worilds, but the most damning thing to me is lack of real cause to hold such a strong emotion. Jason Worilds has grown into a nice, solid, mostly-reliable linebacker who seems to be a good teammate and a high-effort guy. The problem is that Steeler OLB's have to be extraordinary for the team to succeed. Removing the "extra" from that key word leaves the team in a difficult spot. So yes, I am disappointed by what Jason Worilds has managed to become. Pittsburgh needs an actual star who can come to the rescue when we're up by two points with two minutes left and Brady has the ball. Worilds plays more like that man's ideal backup.

Does that mean I think Worilds will, or should, be gone next year? Absolutely not. The Pittsburgh Steelers don't need to get rid of Jason Worilds; they need to add a player who is good enough to force Jason Worilds to the bench. Until that player steps up the team has no choice but to pay Jason Worilds - or a similar free-agent veteran hired in his place - as if he was the healthy Lamarr Woodley who actually earned a goliath deal. At this point the lack of a pass rush is merely a major handicap. If it gets any worse - and it could if Worilds leaves with no replacement - we'll be looking down the barrel at phrases like "crippling," "team-destroying," and "abandon-all-hope futility." No thank you.

Jarvis Jones. I prefer to live my life seeing the glass half-full. Jarvis Jones looked like a better-than-ordinary and still-improving player during the first few games of 2014. I choose to believe in that reality. JJ's problems as a rookie had been the very things described above; a need to build functional strength and enough technique to multiply it into dominant play on the field. Before he got hurt, there were definite signs of improved technique and, while he still got washed out of too many plays, enough new strength that his opponent had to work much harder to win than we saw during the rookie year.

After the injury... well, let's just say that events proved a one-handed, second-year Jarvis Jones isn't good enough to hold down the position. To be fair, the same was just as true about a lower-back-suffering James Harrison back in the day. I won't say that JJ is on his way to being a star but it doesn't take rose-colored glasses to ink him in as a promising young starter. Maybe a tinge of pink, perhaps, but nothing like actual rose.

And then we come to... As the Bard said, aye there's the rub. All the remaining OLB's on the roster were either picked late on Day 3 or deemed unworthy of being in the top 250 prospects of their respective class. Don't get me wrong. They're young men packed with potential. But there are genuine reasons why each and every one of them fell so far. Here is a brief rundown.

Arthur Moats. Moats is by far the most "proven" of the remaining crew. Going into his 5th year (his 2nd in Pittsburgh) Moats made his bones as a special teams demon and has established his place as a reliable tackler who gets to the right place to do his job. He is also a top tier human being who raises all boats around him and makes my city a better place to live in. Those are all fine assets, and the word on the street is that he has some decent pass rushing moves too - just not enough to unseat either Jason Worilds or last year's James Harrison from their spot in the 2014 lineup. Put in the most basic terms, Arthur Moats has shown the ability to be another decent placeholder at OLB who would probably be no more than a small step down from what's already there with Jason Worilds. Could he bet better than that? Possibly. He's not a rookie but we have seen sophomore-in-the-system leaps that were similar to the more typical advances made by 2nd-year players. But there's no way we can count on it.

Oh, and Moats also happens to be a free agent. I think it's a given that the Steelers will bring him back, but I thought the exact same thing about Al Woods at this time last year.

Roosevelt Nix. He gets to go next because I made such a big deal about "Baby Deebo" throughout last year's draft. I still like his long-term prospects but that doesn't mean I'm blind to the hurdles he faces. Here's the deal: Roosevelt Nix was a vastly undersized defensive tackle in college who had enormous success because (and I'm citing other people's opinions here) he has an even quicker first step than last year's phenom Aaron Donald. We're talking crazy fast off the line of scrimmage. But 5'11" and 260 pounds is too small to play tackle in the NFL even if you do have a step that fast, and that left him as a man with no position. Nix signed with Atlanta as a UDFA fullback, and promptly earned semi-legendary status by hitting a tackling sled so hard that it broke in two... right before he got cut, as ceremoniously documented by Hard Knocks. If Roosevelt Nix can find some way to harness all that power and quickness he really could be the next James Harrison. Just don't forget that it took the original Deebo years of work, and getting cut by both the Steelers and the Ravens, before he finally "got it" well enough to play. There are many worse underdogs you could bet on than Roosevelt Nix, but that doesn't mean the odds are stacked any way but against him.

Shawn Lemon. This is the young man that Pittsburgh signed a few weeks ago out of the CFL. He went undrafted in 2011 because teams thought he lacked the athleticism to succeed as a 235 pound linebacker, and then bounced into and out of six (6) different CFL teams, which sort of proved that the scouts were right. In the meantime, however, Lemon kept working on his strength and technique. Chance # 7, the Calgary Stampeders, proved to be the charm. Lemon had a breakout 2014 season in which he dominated the competition almost as if he was, well, an NFL-caliber player going against CFL-quality opponents. Thus it's fair to say that Shawn Lemon has fewer natural tools to work with than prospects such as Nix or Howard Johnson, but may have the edge nevertheless because he's been forced to build himself up from the inside out. It's not easy to keep getting rejected and to keep coming back for more. Men who have persevered through that kind of trouble have an advantage over those who have yet to be tested as hard. In other words, there can be no doubt - none, zero, zip, zilch, nada - that Shawn Lemon will fight for this shot with everything he has. The only question is whether he has enough to get the job done.

Howard Jones. Neal Coolong described this 2014 priority UDFA as a Division II uber athlete who absolutely dripped with potential. He quickly became a fan favorite too. But what's that line about the true meaning of the word "potential"? None of us knows how far or how fast Howard Jones grew during his year on the Steelers practice squad. If he was coming along like gangbusters the team would have done everything possible to hide it. If he was idling in neutral, they'd have done the exact same thing. The result is that Kevin Colbert & Co. can judge if they have a potential gem but we cannot. Grab a random card from the deck - your odds of getting a King are probably similar to the chance that HoJo will be the guy to back up Jarvis Jones in 2015.

Jordan Zumwalt. The Steelers took Zumwalt in the 6th round of last year's draft because he ppossesses so many of the non-athletic traits you look for in a linebacker; football IQ, toughness, leadership, attitude on the field, and a nonstop motor. A preseason groin injury put him on injured reserve and forced what amounted to a medical redshirt year. Grab that same deck. This time you want a Jack... Or maybe a one-eyed Jack, since it was never quite clear if Zumwalt was more of an ILB or an OLB to begin with.

And finally we come to the one and only James Harrison; a Pittsburgh legend who earned every bit of his enormous renown; and a man who is now 36 years old. That's 50% older than the average age of his OLB teammates. When a 36 year old man is anything more than your worst-case emergency backup, your team is in serious trouble. No disrespect to Deebo but I sincerely hope that isn't the case.

In sum, the Steelers have one OLB who can hopefully perform to our high level of expectations (Jarvis Jones); one very expensive OLB who plays like a very good backup (Worilds); one OLB who we think is a capable backup but might prove to be more in a perfect world (Moats); four young men who earned the right to dream but haven't yet shown a real ability to get on the field, let alone to beat out the likes of Jason Worilds; and a 36-year old legend who might be able to find one last miracle and serve as an emergency placeholder if all else fails.

In a word: eek.

Part 3 - What To Expect As the Team Moves Forward

Before writing this article I went back to re-read and re-listen to Kevin Butler's interview with Bob Labriola. I encourage you to do the same because there's been a lot of misinformation about what our new coordinator actually said.

Coach Butler did not suggest that the team might move to a 4-3 base, or even that it would be using more 4-3 concepts than it had in prior years. All he said was that (a) modern defenses have to focus on being adaptable in order to counter the flexibility seen in their modern counterparts across the line, and (b) the type of 4-3 concepts already used by the Steelers in sub-packages are indispensible parts of being that adaptable. That is hardly a ringing clarion call to change the Steelers defensive scheme from what was built by a man who Coach Butler clearly held in the highest regard.

What I found more interesting was Coach Butler's emphatic statement that the true art of building a defense lies in customizing the schemes to fit the available talent. To me that opens the possibilities up far more than any philosophical changes between Yoda LeBeau and Obi-Wan Butler.

For example: This year's draft features several Size XL linebacker prospects with 1st- to 3rd- round grades, including guys such as Alvin "Bud" Dupree from Arkansas (6'4", 267 lbs.), Owamagbe Odighizuwa from UCLA (a personal favorite who weighs in at 6'3-1/2" and 266 lbs.), Dupree's Arkansas teammate Trey Flowers (6'2-1/4", 268 lbs.), Preston Smith from Mississippi State (6'6", 270 lbs.), and Za'Darius Smith from Kentucky (6'4-1/2", 270 lbs.). Every one of those prospects would instantly be the largest man in the Steelers corps of OLB's, but Butler's comments suggest this would not be a problem. Baltimore has had great success rotating the oversized Courtney Upshaw or Pernell McPhee with a smaller pass-rushing specialist like Elvis Dumervil. Coach Butler is clearly willing to be flexible in that way if provided with those sorts of talents.

At the same time, Butler would probably be just as eager, willing, and able to customize the defense around the skills offered by speedy, room-to-grow types such as Vic Beasley from Clemson (6'3", 235 lbs.), Danielle Hunter from LSU (6'6", 240 lbs.), Eli Harold from Virginia (6'4", 235 lbs.), and later down in the draft Max Valles from Virginia (6'5", 240 lbs. and 19 years old). The bottom line is that the Steelers will continue to value athletic skill and potential over any formula that armchair draftniks like yours truly could derive from merely crunching the numbers.

There is a simple reason why most of us view a pass rushing linebacker as the team's biggest need going into the draft. It's because a scary pass rush is essential to any dominant defense, and that has been a far bigger weakness in Pittsburgh's recent defensive teams than any flaws in the secondary.

It's possible that Colbert & Co. may have inside information showing that Nix, Lemon, HoJo, or Zumwalt can be our hidden ace in the hole. If so, the team will only need to find one OLB in the upcoming draft (a so-called "elephant" OLB and/or developmental depth) instead of two (a soon-as-possible starter in addition to the need for variation and/or depth). Either way, OLB will definitely be high on the Steelers' wish list when draft day rolls around, and if the front office isn't chortling in secret about what's hidden behind the scenes, the team may have to go all-in.

So here are my predictions for the little they're worth. First, I will be shocked if the Steelers fail to either keep Jason Worilds or to bring in an equivalent free agent. If they can't find a star to man the position, the front office must at least hire someone to keep that spot warm. I will even predict that Pittsburgh may have to pay that placeholder more than we fans think is justified by the level of actual talent. What can I say: leverage has its perks.

As to the draft, I predict that the Steelers will get at least one and possibly two OLB prospects, and I wouldn't be too surprised if the team even takes the all-but-unheard-of step of trading up to get the guy they want.