Training Camp Preview and Roster Projections: Linebackers

Because sooner or later, we’ll all be trying to predict the final 53…

Likely Roster Spots: 8-9

Projected Starters: OLB James Harrison, OLB LaMarr Wodley, ILB James Farrior, ILB Lawrence Timmons

Key Training Camp Battles: Keyaron Fox, Thad Gibson, Stevenson Sylvester, Andre Frazier and Patrick Bailey fighting for final 2-3 LB roster spots.

Projected for 53-Man Roster: (8) Harrison, Woodley, Farrior, Timmons, Larry Foote, Jason Worilds, Fox, Gibson

Analysis: In James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers easily have the best tandem of 3-4 OLBs in the game and the best 1-2 pass-rushing combo as the two have combined for a league-high 51 sacks in their two seasons together as starters.

If Pittsburgh’s porous secondary play from 2009 improves, Woodley and Harrison may surpass their combined 27.5 sacks from the Super Bowl-winning 2008 season.

Both are also stout run defenders with Harrison an ever-improving pass defender and Woodley able to hand some pass coverage responsibilities. The pair has probably surpassed Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene as Pittsburgh’s best ever all-around 3-4 OLB duo.

Defensive captain and inside linebacker James Farrior remains the heart and soul of an aging Pittsburgh defense. Farrior was the runner-up for the 2004 AFC Defensive Player of the Year Award behind Ed Reed, and made the Pro Bowl again after the 2008 season that saw Pittsburgh win its second Super Bowl title of the Farrior era.

It was surprising to see the Steelers sign Farrior to a 5-year-contract extension before the 2008 season. Now, he is 35, entering his 14th season, and everyone seems to believe he has lost a step but defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who remains overly loyal his veterans, especially Farrior.

Farrior did lead a subpar Pittsburgh defense in total tackles again last season. But it was his late missed tackles against Chicago and Baltimore that could have won both of those games for Pittsburgh, sending the Steelers into the playoffs with ease.

The problem is that Farrior was in position to make those tackles, but he was just a step or two slow. He would have definitely made the Chicago tackle a few years ago, although he had no business being assigned man-to-man coverage with Ray Rice in the Baltimore game on third-and long.

LeBeau remains one of the top defensive coordinators in the NFL and is one of the best of all-time. But Farrior needs to come off the field on obvious passing downs this fall, allowing Lawrence Timmons to be the coverage inside linebacker. That is Timmons’ strength, because he is a poor run-stuffing inside linebacker.

Timmons has had an up-and-down, injury-plagued career, where he has shown flashes of brilliance. Timmons has Pro Bowl potential as a 4-3 weakside outside linebacker, where most teams had him projected before the Steelers tabbed him No. 15 overall in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft.

A great natural athlete, Timmons is solid in pass coverage when given the chance, outstanding in pursuit and an excellent straight-line pass rusher but with few moves. Unfortunately, he is an undersized, below-average 3-4 inside linebacker against the run.

I do not believe any team should take a 3-4 ILB in the top 15 of the NFL draft. That is poor position value and Timmons has turned out to be one of the most under-achieving Steeler first-round picks drafted by Kevin Colbert. He still has great upside and will showcase some brilliant plays, but will likely never fully reach his potential as an ILB in the Steelers’ defense.

Timmons’ inability to take on and shed blockers last fall is why the Steelers brought back Larry Foote after his 1-year stint in his hometown of Detroit. Foote started for the Steelers’ Super Bowl championship squad in 2008 over Timmons, but returns as a reserve that should still see early-down playing time.

Foote, though, is limited athletically and can easily be exposed in pass coverage by many NFL tight ends and running backs. However, this was a solid signing, since Foote is intelligent, experienced, strong against the run, and a top character player in the locker room.

Veteran Keyaron Fox now falls to the fourth overall inside linebacker spot and is thus slightly in danger of not making the roster if beaten out by rookie Stevenson Sylvester. However, Fox is likely to make the roster and dress on game days, because he is one of Pittsburgh’s best and most experienced special-teams coverage players.

The Steelers had little depth behind Harrison and Woodley at outside linebacker, and they were expected to draft a player in the first four rounds of a 2010 NFL Draft that was unusually deep in 3-4 OLB prospects.

Pittsburgh liked those prospects so much that they drafted a pair of 3-4 OLBs and three linebackers overall in the first five rounds of the 2010 NFL Draft, even though the team had more pressing needs.

Pro Football Weekly dubbed the Steelers’ second-round selection of Virginia Tech OLB Jason Worilds as the third biggest reach of the entire 2010 NFL Draft. Worilds is an athletic, somewhat short (6-foot-1), high-motor, tweener, who suffered through some injuries at Virginia Tech.

He has great potential in the Steelers’ scheme. Ideally, he can provide quality depth as a No. 3 OLB this fall as a reserve who sees regular action, starts if there is an injury to one of the two superstars, and excels on special teams, which he did for outstanding groups at Virginia Tech.

But it was highly debated if a 9-7 Steeler team with no depth at offensive tackle even before the injury to Willie Colon and a mediocre group of cornerbacks should have used a luxury second-round pick to back up arguably its two best players in Harrison and Woodley.

Worlilds had a second-round grade by some and no worse than a fourth-round grade by any draft experts. However, criticism of the Steelers’ taking Worilds 52nd overall intensified after no other pure 3-4 OLB prospects were drafted next until the Steelers took Ohio State’s Thad Gibson with the 116th overall selection in the fourth round.

The 21-year-old Gibson, however, clearly represented good value and great long-term potential at that draft spot. But the Steelers were clearly going with the best-available philosophy with that pick, because Gibson is unlikely to see serious minutes for several years and probably will not even dress this fall due to his inexperience on special teams.

The Steelers have cut a pair of fourth-round picks as rookies in recent years (Fred Gibson and Orien Harris), but Gibson would have to have an awful camp to not make the roster.

That appears to be bad news for Arnold Frazier and Patrick Bailey. Frazier has been serviceable as a No. 3 OLB over the last couple of season, but Pittsburgh clearly wanted an upgrade. Essentially, Worilds and Gibson would both have to be a long way away from playing for Frazier to make the roster again. After winning the Steelers’ rookie-of-the-year award in 2008 due to his special-teams pay and a lack of competition, Bailey was unimpressive on special teams in 2009 and is now a longshot to make the roster.

Probably even more of a surprise than drafting the two OLBs early was the Steelers’ following up with the pick of Sylvester in the fifth round. He was rated as 4-3 OLB prospect by many, but will play inside with the Steelers. Ideally, the Steelers can either stow Sylvester on IR for a year, or hope he clears waivers and can be resigned to the practice squad, because keeping a ninth linebacker may not be a luxury the Steelers can afford this fall.

It is difficult to see how Pittsburgh can keep both Sylvester and rookie 6th-round CB Crezdon Bulter on the 53-man roster. Barring injuries, one will have to be cut and hoped to be re-signed to the practice squad, and Bulter plays a position where the Steelers are not as strong. Sylvester, though, can win a roster spot with a solid camp and he is apparently a solid special-teams player.

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