Gil Brandt of NFL.com recently told the world what Steelers fans already know about 2014 first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier: "If he stays healthy the whole season, he can make the Pro Bowl and solidify himself as the new face of the Steelers defense." ESPN also recognized Shazier on its Ultimate 53-man roster list, which was billed as "the best NFL roster $142,383,980 could buy,." ESPN considers Shazier as an attractive combination of productivity and value.
With fellow ILB and 2007 first-round pick Lawrence Timmons out with a troubling case of turf toe, Shazier's role on the defense could be even more critical. In 2014, his contributions were stymied by poor health and difficulty learning Dick LeBeau's notoriously complicated defensive schemes. Much to the consternation and dismay of fans everywhere, after a promising preseason, Shazier was sidelined with a knee injury in week 3 against the Carolina Panthers and never really returned to top form during the season.
What would Shazier have brought to the table if he had remained healthy? It is hard to tell, but he definitely showed flashes of brilliance early on in the season. In week 2 against Baltimore, for example, he tallied 11 tackles, while the week prior against Cleveland he caused a strip fumble. Still, however, during the 2014 season Shazier was also known to be out of position and miss tackles.
This year, Shazier has several factors working to his advantage. First, he is healthy. He also showed up at camp nearly 10 pounds heavier than he was last year. Second, he has a year of experience under his belt. Third, and maybe most important, Keith Butler's brand of Steelers defense may be easier for younger players to grasp and execute successfully.
Butler is so comfortable with Shazier, that he told ESPN's Josina Anderson that he would be making calls on the defense: "I've got a lot of faith in (Shazier's) knowledge of the game and I think that he is a pretty sharp young man. In terms of running the defense (Shazier and Timmons) are going to be like quarterbacks of the defense for us."
While Shazier was not perfect in the Hall of Fame game and first two preseason games, he was speedy, intuitive, and effective. While he is prone to overrunning plays, he showed more often than not that he can be in the right place and the right time to make plays that count. The apparent transition to a Cover 2, 4-3 seems to be a better fit for Shazier and a better use of his speed.
With health, experience, and the confidence of his coach on his side, Shazier should avoid a sophomore slump and demonstrate the qualities that made him the Steelers first-round pick last year.