With a quietly impressive rookie year behind him, the Pittsburgh Steelers' LaMarr Woodley is ready to step into a marquee role next season -- especially with former starter Clark Haggans still a free agent.
And he has every reason to carry the same chip on his shoulder that Steelers MVP James Harrison did before the 2007 season. Harrison, an undrafted LB from Kent State in 2004, was cut multiple times before earning a roster spot behind former Steeler Joey Porter. Harrison got a smaller extension to stay in Pittsburgh before the 2006 season, mostly with the idea in mind that he would replace Porter when he left.
Porter signed a $20 million guaranteed contract with Miami last offseason, and he proceeded to do next to nothing in 2007. Harrison, a Pro Bowl starter, was paid considerably less than Porter but fared far better.
Woodley's start is similar to that.
The Steelers chose Woodley in the second round last April after they took Florida State's Lawrence Timmons, a projected OLB, in the first round. That injection of youth in the position clearly indicated Haggans was going to be shown the door at the end of this past season. The question became: Would Woodley or Timmons replace him?
Woodley grabbed the limelight as Haggans faded away quietly. Timmons spent nearly all of training camp with a groin injury, and he played only on special teams and as the roving linebacker in nickel packages. Woodley exploded immediately, picking up sacks in two of his first three games.
That start didn't increase his playing time, though.
With Steelers coach Mike Tomlin seemingly giving the edge to the veteran in any inkling of a position battle, Haggans was not in the team's future plans going into 2007, but he barely left the field all year.
Woodley was more productive on a per-play basis, yet he was a situational player at most. The Steelers' nickel package included a look that had only two down linemen (usually NT Travis Kirschke and DE Aaron Smith) with DE Brett Keisel standing up, showing blitz. Haggans stayed in there, even though Woodley was instant chaos off the bench. He finished the regular season with four sacks and several pressures. Woodley even sacked Jaguars QB David Garrard twice in Jacksonville's 31-29 win over Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
Now, with a year of experience behind him, Woodley will go into camp in 2008 as the starter at LOLB, and with Harrison - who led the team with 8.5 sacks - drawing all the pass-rushing attention, Woodley will have every opportunity to help the Steelers improve on an uncharacteristically low 36 sacks as a team in '07.
Haggans, still teamless, has been dubbed by some as a product of the system in Pittsburgh. Even if the Steelers seriously entertained the idea of bringing him back (and barring the restructuring of a few contracts, they won't have the cap room), he would likely be on the second team behind Woodley; and it's far more likely the Steelers simply fill the depth at that position in the draft.
First it was Porter, then Harrison. Now it's Woodley's turn to be the newest Steelers OLB to lead the team in sacks.