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Steelers position review & outlook: Linebackers

We took a short break from our position review and outlook series once all the hoopla started with the Steelers coaching staff and Ben Roethlisberger.  While that’s still a hot topic, as is free agency, it’s high time we got back to this series. Next up is the Linebackers, arguably the most notable group on the Steelers year in and year out. They are traditionally the most talked about and scrutinized next to the offensive line.

James Harrison: The most notable of the linebackers without a doubt. James makes no excuses for his play or his attitude. He wears his emotions on his shirt sleeve and isn’t afraid to tell it how he sees it, anytime and anywhere. Considering the rough time Harrison had in 2010 when he was fined repeatedly, his 2011 campaign was much kinder to his checkbook if nothing else. Harrison will turn 34 this May, and just finished up his 8th season in the league. He’s got less wear and tear on his body than most players his age mainly because he really didn’t start his NFL career until 2004.  Since then he’s been a staple on the Steelers defense and arguably one of the most dominating linebackers in the league.  James is signed through the 2014 season and many speculate that will be his final contract in the league.  Even after 2 back surgeries in the offseason last year and the broken orbital bone that kept him out of 4 games he was still able to register 9 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 59 tackles.  I see no reason why he won’t be as effective as ever in 2012, especially with a healthy Lamarr Woodley back on the other side. Outlook: With the surgeries out of the way he’ll be ready to go full speed next year.

Lamarr Woodley: The season started out in superb fashion for the Pharaoh. He signed his new $61.5 million dollar contract in August of last year and seemed poised to have a breakout season. Through the first 8 weeks he was a terror on the field, especially in October when he registered 6 of his 9 sacks. Then against New England in week 8 he went down hard chasing Tom Brady and was never the same since. He was optimistic that the hamstring would be better each week, and never let on just how bad it really was. He tried to come back several times but was never the same. He’ll be ready to go in 2012 and the Steelers need him to have a big campaign. Outlook: Will be completely recovered from the injury and resume his starting position on the defense.

Lawrence Timmons: Another of the beneficiaries of the Rooney’s checkbook, Timmons signed his 6 yr. contract worth $50 million before the start of the 2011 season as well. He was drafted the same year as Woodley, 2007 Tomlin’s first year as the Steelers head coach. After missing much of his rookie campaign with injuries he burst onto the scene in 2008 and has made steady progress ever since. Dick Lebeau trusts him to do everything from rush the Quarterback to dropping back in coverage. Timmons has become a force on the team, versatile enough to move outside when needed as well. At 6’1″ 234 lbs. he’s got the size to take on blockers as well as keep up with Tight Ends in the flat. He’s found a home in the middle of the defense where he can be a disruptive force in all phases. As long as he stays healthy the sky is the limit. Outlook: Finished up with 93 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception. He’ll be back in the middle next year and we can expect big things from him.

James Farrior:  The great “Potsie” just turned 37 this past January, finishing up his 15th season in the NFL. Farrior is the unquestioned leader on the field and well respected in the locker room.  He had 78 tackles and 2 sacks, the former being his lowest output since joining the Steelers in 2002.  Dick Lebeau decided to run a “middle linebacker by committee” this past season as Farrior split time with veteran Larry Foote. Nobody can question his heart or passion for the game but father time is relentless and has no friends in professional sports. James is signed through the end of the 2012 season, and assuming he is still on the team for the upcoming season, that figures to be his last contract before retirement. Both James and his agent have commented this offseason that he intends to return next year. His cap hit won’t be an issue, it’s a modest $3.825 million count against the team this year. They must decide if he can return to form one last time though because his struggles in 2011 were evident especially against the pass. Outlook: You hate to see such a battle tested veteran like Farrior leave before he’s ready but if the Steelers truly want to move forward they will need to address his position in the draft. A possibility is him returning for his final year and splitting time with whomever the Steelers pick up in this year’s draft.

Jason Worilds: Drafted to possibly be the next great pass rusher, Worilds saw significant playing time last year due to the injuries to Woodley and Harrison.  He had 38 tackles, 3 sacks, and 1 forced fumble. Early in the season he seemed to be lost and swallowed up by the offensive blockers but as the year went on he started to find his groove. Worilds had his best game in week 14 against Cleveland; 9 tackles and 2 sacks. There’s no way to predict if injuries will strike the outside linebackers again so he needs to continue to improve his game. Even though he won’t be a starter, he’ll get playing time regularly to spell both Harrison and Woodley. Outlook: Look for him to build on the momentum he had in the latter part of last season and be a consistent force when called upon.

Larry Foote: A fan favorite his entire career, Foote returned to the Steelers in 2010 after a short stint in Detroit. His heart may be in his hometown in Michigan but his football home is in Pittsburgh.  With one year left on his contract the Steelers are in a similar position with Larry as they are with James Farrior. Do you keep one or both of them for another season while you groom the future middle linebacker opposite Lawrence Timmons or throw the rookie to the wolves and let him learn on the job? Logic tells you they won’t keep both though.  Foote is a great teammate, a solid special teams player and can fill in at linebacker whenever called upon. Outlook: We’ll have a better idea of his future once the draft is over and we see who the team brings in. It’s probably a safe bet though that the Steelers will release either him or Farrior.

Stevenson Sylvester: This is the guy that many, me included, have been waiting to see break out and be a force beside Timmons in the middle. He played in 15 games this past season, finishing with 7 tackles and 1 forced fumble. Sylvester had a rough training camp and preseason last year but it was a learning experience for him. He’ll have his chance to make a name for himself as he enters his 3rd season in the league though. With both Farrior and Foote in the twilight of their careers, now is Sylvester’s time to shine. Outlook:  I look for him to step up and grab ahold of that middle linebacker position and run with it. He’s got the size and speed, now he just needs to improve the skills.

Chris Carter: The rookie, 5th round out of Fresno State, played in 8 games in 2011 but didn’t see any action after week 12. He finished up with 3 tackles on the season. Carter battled hamstring injuries right out of the gate and could never fully recover to make an impact on the field. He was eventually placed on injured reserve on January 4th. He’ll have a chance to compete for a roster spot but it will be stiff competition with Sylvester. Outlook: Needs to use what limited experience he got in 2011 and come on strong to have a chance to see the field with any significance.

Contract numbers courtesy of Spotrac



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