Once upon a time back in 2002, the Pittsburgh Steelers dipped their toes deeply into the free agent pool, signing a certain inside linebacker by the name of James Farrior. The 8th overall selection of the 1997 NFL Draft, Bill Parcells plucked him to be his modern-day version of Lawrence Taylor or Harry Carson, game wreckers and both of whom he coached earlier in his career. An under-the-radar signing, he was welcomed in Pittsburgh, stripped of the high expectations that he seemingly failed to live up to see in New York. After starting 43 games in five seasons, he didn’t see new head coach Herm Edwards’s 4-3 defense as a fit anymore, thus the two sides parted ways. Little did the Steelers know that in Farrior, they were getting a defensive stalwart, an unquestioned leader and a player who would help them triumph to three Super Bowls, and take home two Lombardi Trophies.
Coming off their loss to the New England Patriots in the 2001 AFC Championship, there was a void at inside linebacker after the loss of free-agent Earl Holmes. Kendrell Bell was the 2001 Defensive Rookie of the Year, so they were set there for seemingly years to come. Their BUCK linebacker spot was a different story. The primary responsibilities of the BUCK ‘backer are to diagnose the pre-snap reads and shift defensive alignments if need be. Basically, the play caller of the defense, and this is something that Farrior did very well for many years.
The main point here is the Steelers’ current linebacking corps is in a state of disarray. With the team obviously trying to get younger and infuse some athleticism on that side of the ball, it’s attention now shifts to it’s pass rush. No more is there a Greg Lloyd, a Jason Gildon, a Joey Porter or a James Harrison. Back near the turn of the century, the Steelers were one of few teams who ran the 3-4 defense. Because of this, they had their pick of the litter when it came to the “tweeners,” the undersized defensive ends who were too small to play along the line in the NFL. Presently, a majority of the league runs the 3-4 so Pittsburgh’s sample size has dwindled quite a bit. With the only outside linebacker signed for 2015 being Jarvis Jones, who to this point has shown nothing but flashes, it’s definitely an area of offseason focus.
One player who could be had on the cheap, and would very much be a “Steelers-type” signing is outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard, the former Cleveland Brown. The Browns’ second round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Sheard recorded 15.5 sacks in his first two NFL seasons. Whether it was a regression or the fact the team signed Paul Kruger and drafted Barkevious Mingo, his play since then has tailed off somewhat, and he posted just 2 sacks in 2014. A lot of fans clamor that Baltimore Ravens linebacker Pernell McPhee would be the better suited pickup. At just 26 years old, McPhee recorded 7.5 sacks in a situational role, despite playing behind Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. He is 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds, and is a major chess piece, capable of playing anywhere along the front seven. he is large enough to play along the line and hold up against larger NFL tackles but also adept enough to get after the quarterback. With Suggs battling Father Time, it’s a fair question to wonder whether or not Ozzie Newsome tries to prevent him from leaving Baltimore.
With either of these signings, the Steelers could kill two birds with one stone, and that’s deal a blow to a division rival while at the same time, adding some juice to their pass rush. Sheard, to me, seems like the more “likely-to-happen” signing, and the 6-foot-3, 264-pounder could be a pivotal piece for Keith Butler, allowing him to stand up or put his hand in the dirt. Coming off a 2-sack season, he would obviously be less expensive than McPhee but also more of a risk as well. The risk could be worth the reward though, as Sheard played collegiately at none other than the University of Pittsburgh. It’s obvious Sheard can get after the quarterback, so perhaps like Farrior, a fresh start is all he needs. Maybe this offseason, we’ll see Kevin Colbert and company offer him a homecoming of sorts.