When the Pittsburgh Steelers used their third-round selection of the 2012 NFL Draft on inside linebacker Sean Spence, they did so under the belief that he would become a player, and potentially a starter, in time.
That wound up being the case this past season, but it didn’t exactly go as the team, nor Spence, may have envisioned it.
Of course, the undersized linebacker suffered a severe knee injury in the final preseason game that essentially caused him to miss his first two years in the league. In reality, the injury has in all likelihood robbed him of ever reaching his full potential.
But his returned to the playing field during the 2014 season was a remarkable story all the same, as he never missed any time due to injury, and in fact wound up starting for the majority of the season, though not in the most conventional way.
Technically, it was rookie Ryan Shazier who started at the mack linebacker position last season, and only his injuries allowed Spence to enter the starting lineup. After his first injury in the third game, Spence started the next four games that Shazier missed.
Upon returning, Shazier re-entered the starting lineup, but on a snap count, and only remained for another two games. Spence finished the last four games as the starter as well, even after Shazier returned, though he shared time with Vince Williams.
Spence received the bulk of the work at the mack linebacker spot last year, which was his third season on his four-year rookie contract. That means that Spence is entering the final year of his contract now, but it should be no surprise that there has been a lack of urgency to re-sign him.
As a matter of fact, as we have learned yesterday, the Steelers have yet to even discuss a contract extension with Kelvin Beachum, their starting left tackle. Spence is expected to be a backup this season, and has a significant injury history. That’s not something that you need to scoop up in advance.
But given the depth that the Steelers have available to them at linebacker, is it a foregone conclusion that Spence remains on the team? After all, Shazier is the long-term future at the mack spot, and Spence is certainly too small to play the buck effectively—it was his size that saw him replaced in sub-packages by Williams last year.
On the other hand, it’s rather unlikely that the 25-year-old will put himself in a position to earn more than what should be a veteran-minimum qualifying contract heading into next offseason, especially if this upcoming season plays out as expected.
And it seems a rather foreign notion that one could ever have too many linebackers, especially in Pittsburgh. The Steelers got good use out of pretty much their entire depth chart at linebacker last season, both inside and out.
Beyond that, the team has already established a particular bond with Spence, having valued his abilities so much to have retained him through a strenuous rehabilitation process. He may be in the final year of his contract here, and the team may appear to have a spoil of riches at linebacker right now—some have even suggested trading him—but there’s no reason to believe he won’t be a part of the team’s future.