Plug the prototypical modern NFL linebacker into Madden’s “create-a-player” mode and max out his physical attributes. The result would be something akin to Ryan Shazier.
Shazier has attained particular acclaim for translating his off-the-charts athletic abilities to tangible on-field success. Unfortunately, Shazier has become somewhat of a mainstay on Pittsburgh’s weekly injury report, having played in just 34 out of 48 possible career regular season games.
Not all transcendent players are iron men, but Shazier plays a position that is characterized by toughness and longevity. For instance, Lawrence Timmons, one of Shazier’s many successful predecessors, missed two regular season games over the course of his career in Pittsburgh. Hence, by failing to live up to this standard, Shazier has been stigmatized as injury-prone, albeit unfairly. There is a considerable difference between playing hurt and playing through an injury, and most Shazier’s career DNPs have come as a result of the latter.
No one is more frustrated by this than Shazier, who told ESPN that the “best ability is availability” in reference to what he hopes to achieve this season. numberFire projects that a full season from Shazier would yield a borderline All-Pro stat line, which would certainly benefit Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl chances. There is little doubt that Shazier could be an All-Pro in 2017 (he did, after all, receive a Pro Bowl nod despite missing three games in 2016), but he has to stay on the field. Shazier is not only the best player on the Steelers defense, but also a legitimate franchise centerpiece. He has the potential to the one of the best linebackers for a team whose Mount Rushmore includes some of the best players at that position in NFL history.
Pittsburgh’s 18-16 win over the Bengals in the 2016 playoffs is a perfect case sample of Shazier’s game-changing abilities. That night, Shazier had 13 tackles, including two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery that a) prevented Cincinnati from icing the game and b) set up the Steelers’ game-winning drive. Shazier’s performance in that game was as good as you will ever see from an inside linebacker, and it was a rare example of a defensive player single-handedly influencing the outcome of a game.
With Timmons now in Miami, Shazier has assumed an even greater role in middle of Keith Butler’s defense. The Steelers are clearly satisfied with this, as evidenced by the fact that they neither drafted nor signed any high-profile inside linebackers this offseason.
Shazier’s injury history is annoying, yes, but virtually every injury that he has sustained has been fairly minor, which shouldn’t have too much of an impact on his value. A long-term extension will probably pay Shazier somewhere in the ballpark of $8-10 million annually (my guess is that he gets something similar to Dont’a Hightower’s four-year, $35 million deal), which is a small price to pay for the quarterback of the defense.