I posted this one up on the homepage not too long ago and it's gotten to be pretty popular for some reason See what you think!
There are two draft picks that everyone seems to have the Steelers interested in since the combine, if not before. Dontari Poe appears to get further and further out of sight by the day with many experts saying he's a top 15 pick by now. The more realistic name is Dont'a Hightower, LB out of Alabama. Of course you can still make a case for an offensive lineman in round one but for now let's focus on why the need for middle linebacker seems to be so big; or is it?
The Steelers have two solid options on the roster today, one of which should be capable of stepping in right away and the other with the potential to do so.
James Farrior is gone now, free to sign with another team and the consensus is that his long time partner Larry Foote will take over opposite Lawrence Timmons. Makes sense; Foote has starting experience, knows the defense as well as anyone, and is 5 years the younger of Farrior. He's solid in pass coverage, something that Potsie struggled with at times in 2011. Dick Lebeau used the buddy system at middle linebacker last year rotating in the two players to not only keep them fresh but also based on what the offense was likely going to run. The fact that Foote made the cut over farrior wasn't about the money, as the two had very similar cap numbers. It had more to do with Foote's youth and speed in helping to defend the middle of the field against the dreaded tight end and running back's catching passes.
The fact that Foote is still on the roster though doesn't guarantee him a roster spot in 2012 but it does appear that he has been penciled in as the starter. I would expect a full on battle come training camp and preseason between both Foote and 3rd year player Stevenson Sylvester. Larry is as much insurance as anything else because Lebeau knows he can count on him to be able to call the plays and be able to handle the pressure of playing linebacker on a Steeler defense.
Now that he's entering his 3rd season, you expect Sylvester to really take the next step in his career and hopefully be able to solidify a starting spot on the defense. He's had ample time, even with the lockout last season, to learn from the veterans and prove his worth to the team. Being a 3rd round pick, you expect that he'll be able to make his mark on the defense in a role other than just a backup. This is an important year for Sylvester, it's his year to shine and take the job away from Larry Foote. Honestly, for as much as of a Foote fan as I am, if Sly doesn't win this job there is something wrong. That's not a knock against Foote at all, he's been a solid player his entire career and can still get it done.
Sylvester played in 15 games last season in a reserve roll in all except for one start in week 8 against New England. That experience will serve him well but he's going to have to have a great training camp and preseason in order to give the coaches enough confidence to hand him the reigns. From what I saw watching him last season he's definitely got the speed to play the position, and the natural size but seemed to have a tendency to over pursue plays and sometimes get swallowed up in blocks. Those issues can be rectified with experience and coaching; he'll have his work cut out for him no matter how you slice it. He'll be going up against not only Larry Foote but also Dont'a Hightower potentially as well.
If the Steelers do go with Hightower, no one will be surprised or disappointed. He's a beast of an athlete; with the prototypical size and speed to fit the bill. He's also a very intelligent player who could potentially be a starter by mid season if not before. The issue here isn't whether Hightower is a good player or not but really how big is the need for another body at his position; big enough to spend a first round draft pick on? Potentially yes but I wouldn't say it's a given that he'll be a Steeler even if he is there at #24.
I think Dick Lebeau is pretty comfortable with both Foote and Sylvester right now, perhaps more than what most might think. The Steelers have always been big on experience and would rather have a player on the field who already knows what they're doing, rather than a rookie. If they pass on Hightower in favor of say offensive lineman such as Cordy Glenn, Kevin Zeitler, or Mike Adams I wouldn't upset at all. Right now you can make a good case for the interior line being a far greater need than middle linebacker, in fact I would absolutely say that should be the case.
The Steelers obviously have some interest in Hightower since they talked to him at the combine as well as Kevin Colbert being on hand at the Alabama pro day to watch the linebacker go through his paces. As per the Post Gazette and CBS Sportsline’s Chuck Finder: Steelers GM Kevin Colbert attended the first Alabama Pro Day on Wednesday and paid close attention to Crimson Tide LB Dont'a Hightower. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review quoted ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. on Hightower: “How many 265-pound linebackers can run? There's a lot of roles he could play, but in Pittsburgh he would be a key edition”.
Losing out on Hightower, intentionally or otherwise isn't the end of the world because there are options available now that hold the team over for another year if not longer. However if the Bama standout joins the Steelers I'll be just as excited as everyone to watch him play but I'll also wonder what they left behind on the offensive line.