Next in a continuing series of NFL draft stories.
Despite their heavy reliance on linebackers, the Steelers haven’t made a habit of taking them in the first round of the NFL draft, going nearly two decades between selecting Huey Richardson in 1991 and Lawrence Timmons in 2007.
But after making Jarvis Jones their top pick in the draft last season, the Steelers have now selected a linebacker twice in the first round during Mike Tomlin’s seven-year tenure.
And there’s a chance the Steelers could make it three linebackers in the first round in eight years when the NFL draft is held next Thursday through Saturday.
The Steelers hold at least one pick in each of the draft’s seven rounds, including the 15th selection in the first round.
And Pittsburgh could use some depth at linebacker after an offseason in which it released former starters LaMarr Woodley and Larry Foote for salary cap purposes.
Jones and emerging star Jason Worilds will man the outside linebacker positions, while Timmons returns at inside linebacker. Vince Williams, a 2013 sixth-round draft pick, started in place of the injured Foote last season at the other inside spot. Pittsburgh also has second-year player Terence Garvin, signed free-agent Arthur Moats from Buffalo and hopes for a recovery by Sean Spence from a serious knee injury suffered two years ago.
With Worilds signed to a one-year transition deal and Spence an unknown, the Steelers could choose to make linebacker a priority in the draft.
There is a solid group of prospects to choose from.
South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and Buffalo’s Khalil Mack are the top two linebacker prospects and will both be selected in the first 10 picks.
The Steelers could have an opportunity to select UCLA’s Anthony Barr, a 6-5, 255-pound speedster who has lined up at linebacker for just two seasons after playing running back early in his college career.
Barr, who had 231/2 sacks for the Bruins, ran a 4.61 40-yard dash at the combine and followed that up with a blazing 4.41 at his on-campus workout, but is still learning the position after his late switch. He could tempt the Steelers greatly if available with the 15th pick.
Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier (6-1, 237) also has plenty of speed (4.38) but has dealt with some injuries during his career. Because of his lack of height and bulk, he projects as an inside linebacker with the ability to also shift outside in the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme.
Auburn’s Dee Ford (6-2, 252) and Boise State’s Demarcus Lawrence (6-3, 251) also could be taken in the first round. Both project as classic Steelers outside linebackers who would have to convert to the position after playing defensive end in college.
The Steelers have not selected a defensive end to convert to linebacker in the first round since taking Richardson in 1991, a move that didn’t work out.
“I think Mack is a top-10 player; I actually think he’s a top-5 player,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I think Barr has got considerable upside.
“The one guy that’s interesting and it might be a little bit high, but Dee Ford from Auburn is kind of that edge-rush guy. He doesn’t have as much length as you might like, and he might be more comparable to Bruce Irvin who Seattle took at (pick) No. 15 two years ago.”
Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is the top inside linebacker in this draft and has first-round talent. He’s had a myriad of injury issues in college that caused some teams to downgrade him or take him off their draft board.
In later rounds, the Steelers might consider BYU’s Kyle Van Noy, Oregon’s Scott Crichton or Arizona State’s Carl Bradford in the second round, UCLA’s Jordan Zumwalt or Florida State’s Telvin Smith in the third or fourth rounds, or Boston College’s Kevin Pierre-Louis in the fifth.