If there's a position the Steelers' coaching staff must challenge in 2013, it's the linebackers.
No position kept more starters while adding to a building stock of future talent. The question is more "is the future now?" than "is there a future?"
Pundits express concern over whether outside linebacker Jason Worilds is capable of replacing James Harrison, the unit's main loss. The reality is he can't; James Harrison cannot simply be replaced.
Therein lies the challenge for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and linebackers coach Keith Butler. What can this group be without Harrison or a Harrison-like clone?
Worilds is the key, becoming the latest starter in a long line of highly productive right outside linebackers. He's shown some flashes of ability, and he's shown some discouraging hesitancy in his three years with the team. His rookie contract ends after the 2013 season, and if he's going to be a long-term option, he's going to need to show he can make a big leap forward.
It's odd how Worilds avoids the comparisons to LaMarr Woodley - a fellow former second round draft pick who played defensive end in college. Woodley needed just one season of seasoning before taking over as a starter. Woodley translated early success into a long-term extension with the team, but injuries have derailed what used to be a promising career, and if anyone is on the hook right now for future placement with this team, it's Woodley.
Bummed by ankle and hamstring injuries the last two seasons, Woodley quickly backtracked after his first eight games in 2012 when he had nine sacks. He's had four sacks since then, and while he's not going to be challenged on the left side, he hasn't inspired the same level of confidence in his dominance as he used to, and he's not getting any younger.
The Steelers gave veteran Larry Foote - a savvy and fiery leader on the inside - a three-year contract this off-season, keeping him in step with budding superstar Lawrence Timmons, making arguably the best pair of starters on the team. Timmons was the defense's best player in 2012, and he still seems to be playing under his potential. Entering his seventh season at the age of 27, Timmons could finally make the leap many thought he would at some point in his career to the level reserved for the best linebackers in the game.
While depth at the inside linebacker positions is something of a question (watch for Marshall McFadden and possibly even the return of Sean Spence, a rookie in 2012 who tragically suffered a significant knee injury in the preseason), the developing talent at outside linebacker is reason for optimism.
The Steelers used the 17th overall pick on Georgia's Jarvis Jones, a sack-happy and high-motor pass rusher who led college football in sacks last year. While Jones put together impressive tape, his sacks appeared to come more from his relentless nature rather than overpowering physical ability. How much Jones will be used this season is a matter of conjecture, but he has underrated pass coverage skills, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him play inside in nickel situations.
Contrary to many reports, Jones is not a threat to replace Worilds by Week 1. Odds are much better the Steelers find ways to get him on the field in a pass rushing capacity in certain situations.
For all the attention Jones has gotten, second-year OLB Adrian Robinson has gone about his business quietly. A Camp Darling in 2012, Robinson, also a collegiate defensive end, has drawn praise from LeBeau for his raw talent and explosiveness. He could find a way onto the field this season as well as he continues to build himself up as a player of the future within this defense.
Sixth-round pick, Vince Williams, from Florida State looks to be a fringe-roster candidate, but his limitations in pass coverage could make him a more ideal candidate for the practice squad. His leadership ability, though, and potential special teams contributions, might be enough to sneak him into one of the last roster spots.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Wide Receivers
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Cornerbacks
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Linebackers
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Tight Ends
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Running backs
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Quarterbacks
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