When the Pittsburgh Steelers were up on the board in the first round of last year’s draft, they didn’t hesitate in selecting inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, whom they clearly projected as a day one starter early on.
From his very first practice with the team, he assumed the starting role at the mack spot next to Lawrence Timmons. This wasn’t that far-fetched of an idea, of course, considering the other options the Steelers were known to have had available to them at the time.
There was Vince Williams, a second-year former sixth-round draft pick who technically started most of his rookie season, despite being spelled out heavily as the team reverted to six defensive backs as their base package.
Then there was Sean Spence, who was technically a third-year former third-round draft pick, whose future in the league remained uncertain due to an injury that voided his first two years in the league.
From that perspective, it’s not unreasonable that even the Steelers would have slotted in their shiny new first-round draft pick at a key defensive position in the starting lineup from the get-go, even if it didn’t quite work out as planned.
That wasn’t exactly his fault, as the rookie’s year was plagued by a variety of injuries. He suffered a knee contusion in camp, which caused him to miss time, including the team’s opening preseason game, though he did go on to log 125 snaps in the final three games.
As expected, he began the season as the starter, and was only briefly spelled for a drive or two during the first two games, but then he suffered another knee injury in a friendly fire incident in the third game.
The injury robbed him of five games, and when he returned, his role was reduced before suffering yet another injury that caused him to miss yet another four games. This time, he returned as a rotational player who mainly mopped up snaps at the ends of each half.
Some have called into question whether or not Shazier deserves some of the blame for these injuries, and if not the injuries themselves, the way that he handled them. Bob Labriola recently suggested that Shazier perhaps has some growing up to do, writing that he must learn the difference between hurting and being injured.
I couldn’t help but wonder to myself whether or not this was a fair criticism. After all, for younger players, particularly rookies, getting back on the field involves more than just getting healthy. The practice time lost cannot be replicated. There was also the fact that the rotation with Spence and Williams, the coaches felt, had been working.
Were there things said behind the scenes that only privileged ears would be privy to about Shazier’s, let’s say, intestinal fortitude? Are there actual concerns about the second-year linebacker’s pain tolerance, and ability to play through injury?
Or is it idle speculation? Because if it’s the latter, it seems a bit irresponsible to speak of a player through that lens. So, which is it? Is Shazier’s toughness at issue or not?