's release prior to the opening of free agency this offseason leaves a void in the Steelers' lineup that could give us a glimpse of where the Steelers may be looking for the most help in this year's draft.
Mike Tomlin has repeatedly stated that he feels James Harrison can step into Porter's spot at outside linebacker and do the job. Harrison has certainly done so for a game here and there in the past. But we haven't seen the 6'0, 242-pound Harrison play the spot on a week-in and week-out basis.
Harrison should be able to match Porter's seven sacks of last season. Rushing the passer is his specialty as he uses his stature to get up under potential blockers and then his impressive power to go through them.
The Steelers, however, also ask their linebackers to do a lot of the run stopping and dropping into pass coverage as well. And there, Harrison may not be up to Porter's level.
On the other side, veteran Clark Haggans
recorded nine sacks in just 13 games in 2005, but tailed off to six sacks in 15 games in 2006. The Steelers need a return to form by Haggans in 2007 and must also begin thinking about replacing the 30-year-old at some point in the future.
On the inside, James Farrior and Larry Foote were solid in 2006 as the Steelers ranked among the best run-stopping teams in the NFL. Part of the reason for that was the excellent play of the defensive line, but Farrior and Foote ranked first and second on the team tackles, with 154 and 118, respectively. The duo also recorded four sacks each, while also picking off a pass each.
They aren't the problem on this defense, though again, the Steelers have to start thinking about replacing the 32-year-old Farrior at some point. Farrior is still effective due to his great instincts, but he's obviously lost a step.
There's not a lot of depth behind those four - hence the Steelers flirtations with several free agent linebackers this offseason. Despite all their efforts, the Steelers have been unable to bring in any veteran help at the position and will head into the draft with a group of backups that include Arnold Harrison
on the outside and Rian Wallace
, Clint Kriewaldt
and Richard Siegler
on the inside.
As you can see, the depth inside isn't bad - though there's no obvious eventual replacement for Farrior. It's the outside linebacker depth that is lacking.
Arnold Harrison showed some potential in a pair of starts when Porter and James Harrison were out with injuries, but still has a way to go as a pass rusher at the NFL level.
Because of that lack of depth, the Steelers are considering using defensive end Brett Kiesel at outside linebacker at times - especially if they are unable to aquire a top-flight talent at the position in the draft.
Given that we know the Steelers plan to continue running the 3-4 defense, the linebackers will remain one of the focal points of the team. But the Steelers need a difference maker at the position, something that is lacking with the current group.
Because of that, it wouldn't be surprising to see the team select two or even three linebackers in the upcoming NFL draft. It may make the most sense to get somebody who could be ready to play now, even as a situational player to compliment Harrison, while also taking a project later in the draft who may be Haggans' replacement down the road.