This is Part 3 of our Steelers position review series. If you haven’t read Part 1 or 2, please click the links below.
In this installment of our position-by-position review, we take a look at one of the strongest positions on the Steelers; the linebackers.
The linebackers are the playmakers in a 3-4 defense. And the Steelers have some of the best linebackers in the NFL.
Left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley is a young star. To reflect his importance to the team, the Steelers placed the franchise tag on him. Woodley has been one of the best bargains in the NFL over the past 3 years. He has outplayed his contract, and I’m confident that the Steelers will ultimately work out a long-term deal with him.
James Harrison is the right outside linebacker. Despite seemingly being targeted by the NFL this season, Harrison had another excellent season. Harrison shows no signs of slowing down. However, Harrison will be 33 years old next season. He’s not getting any younger, and his playing days are coming to a close.
Jason Worilds was the backup at left outside linebacker last year. While it was only his rookie season, he showed quite a bit of promise. The future looks bright for Mr. Worilds.
Lawrence Timmons was both a starting inside linebacker, and the backup at right outside linebacker. Timmons had a breakout season last year. Despite the notoriety that the two outside linebackers get, Timmons was actually the Steelers’ leading tackler this past season. He ended the regular season with 35 more tackles than James Harrison, and 85 more than LaMarr Woodley. In fact, he was 6th in the entire NFL in that category. Timmons may not get the recognition that Harrison, Woodley, or Troy Polamalu get, but the kid is a budding superstar.
James Farrior was perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the entire defense. After struggling in 2009, and looking like his best days were behind him, Farrior came back strong in 2010. He was second on the team in total tackles, and he had an outstanding overall season.
Unfortunately, Farrior is 36 years old. This will be his 16th season in the league. His career is coming to an end. He may have one or two more seasons left in him, but do we really want 38 year old players out there?
Fortunately for the Steelers, Farrior’s backup is Keyaron Fox. Fox has been rock solid as a backup linebacker and as a special teams player. In fact, when Farrior goes out of the game, the Steelers don’t seem to miss a beat with Fox on the field. Fox is only 29 years old. Moreover, he doesn’t have a lot of starts under his belt, so he should have plenty of gas left in his tank.
Some people got down on Fox this past season because he made a few costly penalties. I’m not one of them. Fox has never had a history of making silly penalties (unlike players like Keenan Lewis and Chris Kemoeatu). Moreover, he’s a bargain at the salary the Steelers are paying him (approximately $800,000). Fox is a free agent, but I strongly recommend that the Steelers resign him. It won’t cost them much to do so (probably $1 million per year), and he has proven to be dependable at the position.
The other veteran backup linebacker is Larry Foote. The Steelers brought Foote back after he spent a couple of seasons in Siberia……errrrr, I mean Detroit. Foote’s experience with the Lions taught him that it is a privilege to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Detroit may have been his home, but you see how quickly he came back to the Steelers.
Sadly, Foote did almost nothing to make his presence felt last season. He will count for $2.7 million against the Steelers’ 2011 salary cap. That may be too much to pay for an aging backup. Keyaron Fox will make less than half that, and Stevenson Sylvester is waiting in the wings.
Stevenson Sylvester surprised everyone when he made the Steelers 2010 roster. Not only did he show surprising ability, but he loves to play the game. He showed that by leading the team in special teams tackles last year. Sylvester’s presence essentially makes Larry Foote obsolete.
Despite the Steelers strength at linebacker, don’t be surprised if they take one in the upcoming draft. James Harrison is getting older, and they don’t have an aspiring replacement for him on the roster. Besides, you can never have too many linebackers on a 3-4 defense. I’d bet that we’ll see a 3-4 rush linebacker taken somewhere between rounds 4-6.
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