If you listen to the recent comments made by Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin, you might get the impression that every single spot in the roster is up in the air right now—at least on the defensive side of the ball. While that observation may not be literally accurate, I don’t believe it’s an accidental impression, either.
The Steelers have been declining in terms of performance on defense for a number of seasons now, consecutively, with sacks and turnovers declining while yards and points allowed have been on the uptick. 2014 saw new lows in many areas, which landed the defense ranked in the middle of the pack, and helped send longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau on his way to Tennessee.
While his replacement may have come as an in-house candidate, there is also the impression that the organization is ready to clean house, in a sense. Gone are the loyalties to the old guard, or so it is supposed, with the exception of James Harrison, whose return has been based largely on necessity.
There are very few players on the defensive roster that could be viewed as entrenched starters. Lawrence Timmons and Cameron Heyward are perhaps the only surefire, obvious choices, though others, such as Stephon Tuitt and Steve McLendon, are also safe bets to see little serious competition for a starting job. Mike Mitchell also gets a pass for his first year in the system.
Everywhere else? It’s open season. There are at least three outside linebackers battling for two starting spots, which will be closely monitored throughout the offseason. There could be another three-way competition at inside linebacker for one spot, and where that spot is exactly may depend on who wins.
Ryan Shazier may perhaps be the frontrunner to start on opening day, but Tomlin and Colbert have expressed the idea that his spot is open to challengers—namely Vince Williams and Sean Spence—both of whom logged significant snaps last season.
At cornerback, there are only four currently on the roster with any kind of experience, and perhaps only one—William Gay—with which they have any sincere confidence as a starter. While they will evidently not address the position in free agency, this appears to leave open the possibility of a rookie starter at the position, which hasn’t happened in a meaningful number of years.
At strong safety? It might even be Mitchell moving from free to strong, depending on how the rest of the offseason goes. If Troy Polamalu’s fate is already sealed as a departure, then Shamarko Thomas would be the obvious candidate to start, but this is another position at which a rookie could potentially compete for an opening day position on the field.
Perhaps what this unit needs this offseason is to feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, unstable. There is a new defensive coordinator, Keith Butler, running the show, and your job isn’t safe. You’re only going to keep your spot if you’re going to help make the defense better than it was. That is the message the front office is sending to the players right now.