2012 Draft

History Shows Inside Linebackers Ignored By Steelers In First Round Of Drafts

You never know what will crop up in the comments section on this site, but I am proud to say that quite a few of the readers here are well informed when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The latest discussion centers around the Steelers potentially drafting Alabama inside linebacker Dont\’a Hightower in the first round and as Greig eludes to in the comments section of another post, the Steelers have not drafted a true inside linebacker in the first round in the Super Bowl era.

Of course I know many of you will point to Lawrence Timmons, who the Steelers drafted in the first round of the 2007 draft. That is where the debate comes in from Derick. Was Timmons, who played outside linebacker at Florida State, drafted to be an inside linebacker. If you go back to the comments Head Coach Mike Tomlin made about Timmons right after that draft, he said, “we\’re a 3-4 team and he\’s a right outside linebacker.” To support the other side of the argument though, Tomlin, General Manager Kevin Colbert and linebacker coach Keith Butler all admitted that Timmons had the ability to also can play inside in the 3-4.

So I guess we are in a chicken and the egg type argument here. Did they draft Timmons to be an outside linebacker or an inside linebacker or both? The analogy was brought up by a reporter during the post draft pressers that Timmons was like fitting a square peg in a round hole. I think we can at least agree that the Steelers saw Timmons as the best player and athlete available on the board when they picked, and thought he was versatile enough to play both outside and inside. Five years later we know that Timmons can only play the MACK linebacker spot inside, as he did not fare well when asked to play outside when James Harrison was out injured last year.

Let us now move forward from that argument and look at the Steelers first round draft history in the Super Bowl era as it relates to drafting inside linebackers. As the table shows below, the Steelers have only drafted two other linebackers other than Timmons in the first round dating back to 1966. Those two players were Huey Richardson in 1991 and Robin Cole in 1977. Both were considered outside linebackers at the time they were drafted after playing defensive end in college. So depending on what you or the Steelers thought Timmons was when he was drafted, the Steelers have drafted either zero or one inside linebackers in the first round in the Super Bowl era.

Steelers 1st Round Draft History In Super Bowl Era

YEAR PICK# PLAYER POS SCHOOL
2011 31 Cameron Heyward DE Ohio State
2010 18 Maurkice Pouncey C Florida
2009 32 Ziggy Hood DT Missouri
2008 23 Rashard Mendenhall RB Illinois
2007 15 Lawrence Timmons LB Florida State
2006 25 Santonio Holmes WR Ohio State
2005 30 Heath Miller TE Virginia
2004 11 Ben Roethlisberger QB Miami (Ohio)
2003 16 Troy Polamalu S USC
2002 30 Kendall Simmons G Auburn
2001 19 Casey Hampton NT Texas
2000 8 Plaxico Burress WR Michigan State
1999 13 Troy Edwards WR Louisiana Tech
1998 26 Alan Faneca G Louisiana State
1997 24 Chad Scott CB Maryland
1996 29 Jamain Stephens T North Carolina A&T
1995 27 Mark Bruener TE Washington
1994 17 Charles Johnson WR Colorado
1993 23 Deon Figures CB Colorado
1992 11 Leon Searcy T Miami (Fla.)
1991 15 Huey Richardson LB Florida
1990 21 Eric Green TE Liberty
1989 7 Tim Worley RB Georgia
1989 24 Tom Ricketts G Pittsburgh
1988 18 Aaron Jones DE Eastern Kentucky
1987 10 Rod Woodson CB Purdue
1986 9 John Rienstra G Temple
1985 20 Darryl Sims DE Wisconsin
1984 23 Louis Lipps WR Southern Mississippi
1983 21 Gabe Rivera NT Texas Tech
1982 12 Walter Abercrombie RB Baylor
1981 17 Keith Gary DE Oklahoma
1980 28 Mark Malone QB Arizona State
1979 28 Greg Hawthorne RB Baylor
1978 22 Ron Johnson CB Eastern Michigan
1977 21 Robin Cole LB New Mexico
1976 28 Bennie Cunningham TE Clemson
1975 26 Dave Brown CB Michigan
1974 21 Lynn Swann WR USC
1973 24 J.T. Thomas CB Florida State
1972 13 Franco Harris RB Penn State
1971 8 Frank Lewis WR Grambling State
1970 1 Terry Bradshaw QB Louisiana Tech
1969 4 Joe Greene DT North Texas
1968 10 Mike Taylor T USC
1966 3 Dick Leftridge FB West Virginia

Is this all a big coincidence or do the Steelers just not value the inside linebacker position enough to draft one in the first round? Has the first round talent, depth of the class and draft spot from year to year played a large role in this pattern? Of course you could point to the center and safety position as being ignored in the first round of the draft by the Steelers in the Super Bowl era as well. Only Maurkice Pouncey in 2010 and Troy Polamalu in 2003 have been the exceptions at those two positions.

Back to Hightower now. There is a very good chance that he could still be on the board when the Steelers pick in the first round of this upcoming draft and he is the second best inside linebacker behind Luke Kuechly in a not so deep class of inside linebackers. Unless the Steelers sign an inside linebacker free agent like David Hawthorne between now and draft day, it will be a position of need headed into the draft. There are questions about Hightower still as it relates to him being a three down linebacker at the next level. He can play the run inside and get after the quarterback, but can he be effective at the next level in coverage?

Perhaps the real question that should be asked is if he has position flexibility to play outside in the Steelers 3-4 defense, should he wind up not being a three down inside linebacker? In my opinion he can. Could Hightower wind up being a case similar to Timmons in that he is the best player available on the board, with the best value and the Steelers will find a spot for him? I think that very well could be possible. Perhaps Hightower is a round peg that needs to be fit into a square hole and perhaps he will be just the fourth linebacker the Steelers have drafted in the first round in the Super Bowl era.

Leave your thought in the comments as to why you think the Steelers ignore inside linebackers in the first round and if Hightower should be an exception to this. Thanks to Greig and Derick for inspiring this post. Have at it people.

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