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Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker corps could be elite in 2016

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The youth movement at the linebacker position is set to come to fruition in 2016 for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Former Patriots linebacker, Willie McGinest, wrote on NFL.com a list ranking the top five linebacker groups in the NFL after the 2015 season. The list included teams with at least one superstar linebacker and teams that were among the sack leaders in the league:

  1. Denver Broncos
  2. Carolina Panthers
  3. Kansas City Chiefs
  4. New England Patriots
  5. Seattle Seahawks
The Broncos have two superstar names in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, while their Super Bowl opponents also have top names in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The Chiefs have Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, while the Patriots have their top pass rusher in Jamie Collins, and the Seahawks have their tandem of Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright.

Each of these teams took years to revamp their defense with high draft picks and developed talent. McGinest listed the Steeles' linebacker corps as one on the cusp, which is an accurate description.

Pittsburgh's group has four first round picks invested into the group in Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree. Timmons has long been a rock in the Steelers' defense for years now as a middle linebacker that developed into a team leader. Jones has yet to develop, but Ryan Shazier had a major sophomore year in 2015 that was highlighted by two crucial turnovers he forced in the second half of the season. Dupree had a good first year notching four sacks and being a consistent protector on the edge.

What has not set this group apart as an elite group has been the lack of consistent production and the lack of an obvious superstar name. Back in the late 2000's, James Harrison LaMarr Woodley both had double-digit sack seasons, leading one of most elite linebacker units for Pittsburgh in recent years. Unfortunately for the franchise, there has not been a double digit sack leader from the linebackers since that unit.

2016 might not have a player that registers 10 sacks or more for Pittsburgh, but a unit that has multiple players that approach it, along with great play from their middle linebackers. Timmons' hard-nosed play in the middle has been a pillar for Pittsburgh's defense in the middle of its transition from the elite group in the late 2000's until now.

Should Shazier be able to avoid injury, he will have the opportunity to put together a complete season; and if that season is full of the same amazing plays as when he was on the field in 2015, he may be recognized as one of the best defenders in the league. Add that to the rock of Timmons and two pass rushers that develop into having 8 or more sacks each, and the Steelers will be on these types of lists after 2016.