Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker: Moderate

What a machine. What a consistent force and performer in the middle of the Steelers defense for 10 glorious seasons.

I’m referring, of course, to inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons who became head coach Mike Tomlin’s first draft choice, when the Steelers selected him out of Florida State with the 15th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Lawrence Timmons started slowly as he learned legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau‘s sophisticated defense, but the athleticism, the explosiveness, they were on display right from the very start.

After serving an apprenticeship under veterans James Farrior and Larry Foote, Lawerence Timmons moved to the  top of the depth chart in his third season and started 124 games between 2009-2016–including a very durable 96-straight over his final six seasons in Pittsburgh.

After the 2016 campaign, Lawrence Timmons became a free-agent and inked a two-year deal with the Dolphins in March, leaving the Steelers with a hole at one of the inside linebacker spots…sort of. Yes, there’s a “Sort of” attached to that statement and how the Steelers define “sort of” will impact their plans for inside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Vince Williams, Ryan Shazier, Steelers 2017 draft needs inside linebacker

Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams celebrate a turnover. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via SportsnetCA

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters

Speaking of athleticism and explosiveness, Ryan Shazier, arguably the Steelers best player on defense, has both in bunches.

A first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Shazier was thrust into the starter’s role right from the beginning, thanks to the team’s transition period on defense from the veteran group that helped win two Super Bowls in the previous decade to the younger version that sorely needed a “splashy” play-maker. Ryan Shazier proved to be that early-on, as he intercepted a pass and made several impressive tackles during his rookie home debut in a preseason game at Heinz Field against the Bills.

  • Unfortunately for Ryan Shazier and the Steelers, Shazier missed seven games in 2014 due to a sprained knee.

Over the past two seasons, Ryan Shazier has grown into his role of the spectacular play-maker and best player on the defense. Two years ago, Ryan Shazier was the best player on the field, recovering a fumble and literally saving Pittsburgh’s season, when he stripped running back Jeremy Hill of the football in the waning moments of a come-from-behind victory over the Bengals in an AFC Wild Card game.

  • Last season, as the Steelers marched all the way to the AFC Championship game, Ryan Shazier recorded 55 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, as he made his first Pro Bowl.

So, who will take Lawerence Timmons’ job and play alongside Ryan Shazier at the other inside linebacker spot? After inking a two-year contract-extension through the 2018 season, Vince Williams, the 2013 sixth round pick out of Florida State, figures to be the heir apparent to Timmons.

Truth be told, Vince Williams appeared to be destined for a future starter’s role, even before the start of the 2016 season. With Lawrence Timmons lame-duck status and declining play in recent years, Vince Williams’ new deal, which he signed before the start of the regular season, seemed like a proactive move by the organization.

When Ryan Shazier missed four games with a knee injury early in 2016, Vince Williams performed so well in his absence–including a combined 25 tackles in back-to-back victories over the Chiefs and Jets–many wondered if Ryan Shazier would be able to reclaim his starting spot.

Surprisingly, however, Lawrence Timmons stepped up his play so much down-the-stretch, as Pittsburgh won nine-straight games, the idea of keeping the Law Dog around for at least another season began to pick up steam. But that talk soon vanished early in free-agency, when Lawrence Timmons jumped to Miami for $11 million in guaranteed money.

With Lawrence Timmons now a former Steeler, the original sentiment of Vince Williams succeeding him at inside linebacker seems to be the plan heading into 2017.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups 

Behind Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, there’s a little promise but mostly just depth.

In Tyler Matakevich, Pittsburgh’s seventh round pick out of Temple a year ago, the team has a potential tackling machine (493 tackles in college).

  • The key word in that last sentence is “potential,” because Tyler Matakevich certainly didn’t prove much a year year ago, while playing mostly on special teams.

Rounding on the backups are L.J. Fort, a journeyman out of Northern Iowa who appeared in 14 games last season but only recorded two tackles; and Steven Johnson, a veteran the Steelers signed as a free-agent a year ago who has only started seven games in his NFL career.

Although he’s played exclusive on the outside for the Steelers, reserve OLB Arthur Moats also has experience playing on the inside and could serve as an emergency backup in a pintch.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker

Pittsburgh did add depth on defense during the free-agency period, but not at the inside linebacker spot (although not for lack of trying, if press reports are accurate).Steelers 2017 Draft Needs inside linebacker

Therefore, with Ryan Shazier’s propensity for injuries early in his NFL career–he’s missed 14 of a possible 48 games over three years–and with Vince Williams’s athleticism not being quite on par with what Lawrence Timmons provided for a decade, selecting an inside linebacker in the first few rounds certainly wouldn’t be out of he question for the Steelers.

  • And what happens when/if either Vince Williams or Ryan Shazier gets injured, and the Steelers are forced to go with unproven and/or less talented players to fill the starting role?

Having Vince Williams was a luxury a year ago, but unless someone like Tyler Matakevich makes that all-important first to second year leap, the Steelers might not have that same luxury in 2017 unless they hit on a player in the draft.

Reuben Foster, a top 10 prospect out of Alabama, figures to be long gone by the time the Steelers spot comes up at 30. But some possible names to keep an eye on are Haasan Reddick out of Temple, who is projected to go in the first or second round; and Jarrad Davis from Florida, who also grades out as either a first or second round pick.

  • Finally, while Pittsburgh does have two players slated to start at the inside linebacker spot, the bottom line is the team could always use another play-maker on defense–regardless of what position he plays.

If that player happens to be an inside linebacker and his value coincides with where the Steelers happen to be drafting, it would probably be a wise choice. Given the state of their starters and backups, the Pittsburgh Steelers need at inside linebacker going into the 2017 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

 

 

 

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Steelers 2017 Free Agent Tracker

The month of March is here which means that Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 off season is set to spring to life NFL Free Agency begins.  In 2017 the Pittsburgh Steelers have a total of 27 players who will be (or would have been) either Exclusive Rights, Restricted or Unrestricted Free Agents.

Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers 2017 free agency, Steelers 2017 free agents, steelers vs giants

Last season Lawrence Timmons & James Harrison closed in on Eli Manning together. Now they’re both closing in on free agency (Photo Credit: Steelers.com)

Here is our Steelers 2017 Free Agency tracker, which we’ll update as events occur.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on a player’s name for a full-length free agent profile of each player, including the pro’s and con’s of resigning the player or letting him walk.

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Resignings

Le’Veon Bell, running back
2/27/17 – Steelers place Exclusive Rights Franchise Player tag on Le’Veon Bell, ensuring his return in 2017
James Harrison, linebacker
3/1/17Steelers resign James Harrison to two year contract
Landry Jones, quarterback
3/9/17 – Steelers resign Landry Jones to two year contract
David Johnson, tight end
3/9/17 – Steelers resign David Johnson to two year contract.
Greg Warren, long snapper
2/2/17 – Steelers resign Greg Warren to 1 year deal
Steven Johnson, linebacker/special teams
2/15/17 – Steelers resign Steven Johnson

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Pickups

Justin Hunter, wide reciever
3/15/17 — Steelers sign Justin Hunter from Miami to 1 year contract
Coty Sensabaugh, cornerback
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Coty Sensabaugh from the New York Giants to two year contract
Knile Davis, kick returner/running back
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Knile Davis from Kansas City to one year contract
Tyson Alualu, defensive lineman
3/20/17 — Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu from Jacksonville to two year contract

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Losses

Markus Wheaton, wide receiver
3/9/17 – Chicago Bears sign Markus Wheaton to a contract
Lawrence Timmons, inside linebacker
3/10/17 – Miami Dolphins sign Lawrence Timmons to 2 year contract
Jarvis Jones, outside linebacker
3/14/17 – Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals sign Jarvis Jones

Steelers 2017 Free Agents Who Remain Unsigned

DeAngelo Williams, running back
Cody Wallace, center/guard
Shamarko Thomas, special teams/safety
Ricardo Mathews, defensive end

Steelers 2017 Restricted Free Agents

Ross Cockrell, cornerback
3/2/17 – Steelers offer original round tender to Ross Cockrell
4/17/17 – Ross Cockrell signs restricted free agent tender
Chris Hubbard, offensive tackle
3/2/17 – Steelers offer right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard

Click on either player’s name for a full-length restricted free agent profile.

By giving extending both Cockrell and Hubbard restricted free agent tenders, the Steelers retain the right to match any offer a team might make them. In addition, the Steelers would get a 4th round pick should they decline to match an offer for Ross Cockrell.

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Alejandro Villanueva, offensive tackleRoosevelt Nix, fullback
Resigned with Steelers
Cobi Hamilton, wide receiver
Resigned with Steelers
Anthony Chickillo, linebacker
Resigned with Steelers
Chris Boswell, place kicker
Resigned with Steelers
Fitzgerald Toussaint, running back
Resigned with Steelers
Jordan Dangerfield, safety
Resigned with Steelers
Xavier Grimble, tight end
Resigned with Steelers
B.J. Finney, guard/center

Additional Steelers Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, guard/center
Cole Manhart, center
Kevin Anderson, linebacker

The Steelers can bring back any Exclusive Rights Free Agent by simply making them a qualified offer. For an in-depth discussion of the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class and its larger significance, click here.

Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent focus articles.

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As Cameron Heyward’s Season Ends – Steelers Nation Collectively Cries: “Game Over!”

The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the middle of what is already their 2nd worst losing streak of the Mike Tomlin era, and the news just got worse. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Heyward’s season ends thanks to a pectorial muscle injury he suffered in the loss to the Cowboys.

Cameron Heyward, Cameron Heyward's season ends, cameron heyward injury

Cameron Heyward’s 2016 season ends due to injury. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers haven’t announced the move yet, but Cameron Heyward made this posting via Twitter and Instagram:

 

One can only imagine that Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Johnny Mitchell must be channeling their inner Bill Paxton:

In truth don’t expect anyone on the South Side to throw in the Towel, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are 0-4 when either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt has missed a game over the last two seasons. Cameron Heyward is easily both the Steelers best and most consistent player on the Steelers defense. He is also a leader both on and off the field. Losing Cam Heyward for the rest of 2016 would be akin to losing Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell or perhaps even Ben Roethlisberger.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ron Cook broke the news on Twitter this morning before Mike Tomlin’s press conference.

Heyward was still being evaluated when Mike Tomlin addressed reporters, so no update came, but the Steelers have confirmed the news.

Mathews and Hargrave Next Men Up

With Cam Heyward out for the rest of 2016, the Steelers will likely turn to Ricardo Mathews and or Javon Hargrave to take his space. Hargrave has been splitting time at nose tackle with Daniel McCullers, but he has gotten reps at defensive end. Mathews started with Heyward missed the Dolphins and Patriots game with a hamstring injury, and the Dolphins targeted him in route to their 200 yard rushing game.

  • The Steelers also have Johnny Maxey and Caushaud Lyons on their practice squad, either of whom could be activated.

The Steelers picked up Caushaud Lyons last year off waivers and kept him on the active roster through the end of September. The Steelers then cut Lyons and resigned him to the practice squad. Regardless of who the Steelers bring onto the roster, the man has extremely big shoes to fill.

Johnson Out Forte Back In

It never rains but it pours. Before losing Cameron Heyward the rest of 2016, the Steelers annouced that reserve inside linebacker Steven Johnson going on injured reserve. To replace him the Steelers will active L.J. Forte, whom they cut this weekend to make way for Ladarius Green.

 

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Steelers Sign Running Back David Cobb to Practice Squad, Waive Cameron Stingily; Grant to Buffalo

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin continue to teak the Steelers roster ahead of Pittsburgh’s 2016 season opener vs. the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. Their latest move saw the Steelers sign running back David Cobb to the practice squad.

  • To make room for Cobb, the Steelers waived Cameron Stingily.
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Steelers sign David Cobb to their practice squad. Photo Credit: Associated Press, used on Titans.com

The Minnesota Vikings originally drafted David Cobb in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but parted ways with the running back after a disappointing rookie season that saw Cobb gain just 146 yards on 52 carries. All told, Cobb appeared in 7 games and made one start. Cobb spent training camp with the Tennessee Titans.

Drafted players generally aspire to do more than secure a spot on a practice squad, but injuries to Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams prompted the Steelers to start practice squad running backs in their last three playoff games.

The move likely spells the end of Cameron Stingily in Pittsburgh. Cameron Stingily joined the Steelers as part of their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class, only to get injured in the Hall of Fame game. The Steelers brought him back in May, right after the 2016 NFL Draft, and word was that Stingily had lost weight and reported in excellent condition.

However, during the Steelers 2016 preseason, Cameron Stingily struggled, rushing twice for a net zero yards.

Doran Grant to Buffalo

The Pittsburgh Steelers really meant when they cut Doran Grant this time. A year ago the Grant made the Steelers inital 53 man roster, only to get cut to make way for two waiver wire pickups, causing a firestorm in Steelers Nation. Grant of course returned to the practice squad, and eventually the regular season roster.

Doran Grant headlined the Steelers 2016 roster cuts, but many expected the Steelers to resign him after putting Senquez Golson on injured reserve. Instead, the Steelers opted to put Bud Dupree on IR and bring Steven Johnson back.

  • Grant nonetheless had practice squad eligibility and their were other moves the Steelers could have made to free a spot in the 53 man roster.

Instead, the Steelers opted to allow rookie first round pick Artie Burns and new arrival Justin Gilbert to vie for the 4th cornerbacks slot. Doran Grant has signed with the Buffalo Bills practice squad.

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Bud Dupree Injured Reserve Designation Surprises Steelers Nation

One day after cutting down to reach the NFL’s 53 man roster limit the Pittsburgh Steelers completed their initial 2016 practice squad and followed those moves by placing an injured member of their defense in injured reserve, and resigning another defender who they cut yesterday.

  • The plan unfolded just as scripted. Except….
bud dupree, bud dupree sacks tom brady, bud dupree debut, bud dupree injured reserve

Steelers Bud Dupree sacks Tom Brady in his 2015 rookie debut. Photo Credit: Stephan Savoia, Associated Press.

…for the defender placed on injured reserve wasn’t Senquez Golson and the recently cut player to be resigned wasn’t Doran Grant. Everyone expected the Steelers to make this transaction as soon as they could, and the move still may be impending (no other NFL team claimed Doran Grant off of waivers, no did he rejoin the Steelers practice squad.)

Bud Dupree has been nursing an foot injury though out training camp, and did not appear in any of the Steelers preseason games. The Bud Dupree injured reserve designation shows that the Steelers do not anticipate Dupree contributing for the first half of the season, when he will be eligible to return. Bud Dupree had a strong start to his rookie season, but saw his performance taper off during the second half of 2015.

  • The Steelers were nonetheless expected Dupree to beefup their pass rush heading into 2016.

That will have to wait. Steven Johnson is the inside linebacker the Steelers signed after losing Sean Spence and Terence Garvin in free agency. Johnson had played extremely well in preseason and show himself to be a capable special teams contributor, but the Steelers favored linebackers L.J. Fort and Tyler Matakevich.

Steven Johnson will remain at inside linebacker behind starters Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons and primary backup Vince Williams. The Steelers depth chart at outside linebacker will be headed by James Harrison, Arthur Moats, Jarvis Jones and Anthony Chickillo.

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Why the Steelers Defense Needs Lawrence Timmons

The 2016 season is expected to be a big one for the Pittsburgh Steelers, at least that’s the hope of many who are predicting a championship run.

With Ben Roethlisberger still in his prime, the Steelers offense is pretty much set at every position–even at receiver where Martavis Bryant will be missing thanks to a year-long suspension. Along with the excitement over the offense comes optimism about a defense that struggled in the final years under Dick LeBeau but sprung back to life in 2015 under new defensive coordinator Keith Butler, complete with 30 takeaways and 47 quarterback sacks.

With players like Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Ryan Shazier, Michael Mitchell, and even promising youngster Bud Dupree providing a new look and feel, this certainly isn’t Coach Dad’s defense any longer.

  • However, while there is clearly reason for excitement and hope for Butler’s charges, the defense remains far from a finished product.

The secondary was still an issue a year ago, when the team finished 30th against the pass, and it could be again in 2016, with so many relatively or downright unproven players vying for playing time.

Therefore, it sure would be good to have a veteran inside linebacker around to keep things in check and make sure everyone is where they need to be. And unless something weird happens, like, say, an outright release as a means to save significant cap space, that veteran inside linebacker will be Lawrence Timmons

  • It feels weird referring to Timmons as a “veteran” of the Steelers defense.

Not only is he still a month shy of his 30th birthday, but it seemed like only yesterday that everyone was waiting for No. 94 to put all of his extraordinary athletic talents together and become this beast of an inside linebacker.

In-fact, right before the 2011 season, when Timmons signed his current contract extension that runs through the 2016 season, it looked as if he had put it all together. Unfortunately for Timmons, who filled in for a few games at the outside linebacker spot for an injured James Harrison, his tackles dipped to 93 in 2011, after recording 135 the year before.

  • Thankfully, Timmons began to put things together during the latter half of the 2012 season, and has basically been the defense’s most consistent player over the past three years.

Has Timmons’ play declined in recent years, and is he a step slower than he was even two or three seasons ago? Perhaps. But the drop-off isn’t as noticeable as it was for, say, Troy Polamalu in 2014, when he looked totally helpless more often than he did the Tazmanian devil of his prime.

According to the salary cap site, Spotrac, Lawrence Timmons’ salary cap hit in 2016 will be just over $15.1 million. That’s why there was some talk not long ago about cutting the veteran linebacker, a move that would create over $8 million in space. However, the move would also leave over $6 million of dead money, which would be the football equivalent of paying a bill with a credit card, because you want to spend the money on something more current (you might get your joy now, but you’ll pay for it later).

Releasing a veteran near the end of a deal as a means to save money is a common practice for most teams in today’s NFL, where salary cap massaging is almost as vital to success as picking the right head coach. However, in most cases (not all) when  a player is released, he’s usually at the end of the road.

Timmons doesn’t seem to be nearing the end of his career. In-fact, after starting every single game since signing that aforementioned extension, Timmons appears to still be right in the middle of his prime.

  • The Steelers’ defense needs that kind of consistency.

Sure, the signing of Steven Johnson helped to offset the free-agent departures of both Sean Spence and Terence Garvinand Vince Williams is certainly a capable and young backup.

But the Steelers defense will be worse off in 2016 if Timmons is axed as a means to save money, which obviously isn’t going to happen anyway. The more likely scenario is the two sides agreeing to yet another extension that will create that much-needed cap space.

Cutting Lawrence Timmons wouldn’t be a viable business or football option for the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers if they want to remain true contenders.

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