The Steelers have long been famous for outstanding linebacker play. But the 2013 season marked the first time since 2007 and just the second time since 2004 that the team did not put a linebacker in the Pro Bowl.
Many would argue inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons deserved the honor, but the fact remains that the Steelers are a team in transition at the position.
Inside linebacker James Farrior retired after the 2011 season, while outside linebacker James Harrison was released in a salary cap-related moved in March. Together, they appeared in seven Pro Bowls and helped the Steelers to three AFC Championships and two Super Bowls.
Replacing some of that lost talent will be a priority for the Steelers in this year’s draft, which will be held April 25 through 27.
The Steelers hold eight selections, including the 17th pick in the first round.
Though former second-round draft pick Jason Worilds is slated to replace Harrison, he’s never started for an entire season. Worilds also is scheduled to be a free agent at the conclusion of the 2013 season and the Steelers might be hard-pressed to re-sign him should he have a breakout year.
And though Larry Foote was re-signed after replacing Farrior and leading the team in tackles, he will turn 33 in June.
Timmons is coming off what should have been a Pro Bowl season, but outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley had a second straight injury-plagued season.
The Steelers also have little depth behind any of those starters and a big question mark in 2012 third-round draft pick Sean Spence, who suffered a serious knee injury in the final preseason game last summer.
This year’s draft has plenty of excellent outside linebacker talent available, with a number expected to go in the first round, including Oregon’s Dion Jordan, BYU’s Ziggy Ansah, Georgia’s Jarvis Jones and LSU’s Barkevious Mingo.
Jones or Mingo might be available when the Steelers pick in the first round and would be intriguing options for a team that has taken one linebacker – Timmons in 2007 – in the first round since 1992.
Jones (6-2, 245) didn’t run especially well at his on-campus workout, timing just 4.90 seconds in the 40-yard dash. And there are questions about a problem with spinal stenosis – a narrowing of the spinal column – that caused the University of Southern California to release him from his scholarship as a freshman.
What cannot be questioned, however, is his play on the field.
A two-time All-SEC pick, Jones, whom the Steelers hosted for a private visit earlier this month, recorded 14.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for a loss in 2012.
“He’s explosive. He’s a playmaker,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “He fits in the 4-3, which is what he already played. But some teams that are in the 3-4 will like him. The teams like Pittsburgh, they don’t care as much about length as some of the other 3-4 teams do.”
Mingo (6-4, 241) has the length and speed (4.54 in the 40) that Jones lacks. But he also was not as productive, making just 38 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2012.
In later rounds, the Steelers could look at outside linebackers Jamie Collins of Southern Mississippi, Khaseem Greene of Rutgers or Corey Lemonier of Auburn.
At inside linebacker, Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o got plenty of attention during the season for his play and after it when the story broke of a fake girlfriend scheme. After posting so-so numbers in his workouts, he’ll be fortunate to be selected in the first round.
Another linebacker who could interest the Steelers in the first round is Kansas State’s Arthur Brown, a sideline-to-sideline instinctive player who fits the mold of Timmons. Like Timmons, who was an outside linebacker in college, Brown would slide inside in Pittsburgh’s scheme.
Inside linebackers the Steelers might choose in later rounds include Sio Moore of Connecticut, Penn State’s Mike Mauti and Florida State’s Vince Williams.