I’m not quite sure how it happened so quickly; injuries and a lack of opportunity obviously contributed, but somehow Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jordan Zumwalt looks like he could be the odd man out of his position group this fall. The team has simply invested time and money and draft picks into other options at the inside and outside linebacker positions in front of Zumwalt, making the sixth-rounder’s presence on the team almost moot. At least, that is the common perception that seems to be floating around the linebacker’s current status with the franchise.
One of the main issues Zumwalt faces is getting opportunity, something he hasn’t had much of since a groin injury kept him sidelined last training camp. Those opportunities will be difficult to come by at his traditional position of inside linebacker, as roster locks Lawrence Timmons, Sean Spence, Ryan Shazier, and Vince Williams all seem to stand in Zumwalt’s way. The latter three can also be effective on special teams, making their roles on the team even more well-rounded heading into camp.
None of this is to say that Zumwalt can’t be effective, on the contrary, I was very high on his college tape, and while the second-year player clearly isn’t the best athlete on the team, he plays with a relentless physicality and a non-stop motor in pursuit. Zumwalt’s instinctive abilities and ideal frame make him a natural fit at linebacker, provided the UCLA product continues to get stronger and bulk up this offseason.
Perhaps most impressive about Zumwalt is his high football IQ. A true student of the game, one of my favorite interviews of last draft season was listening to Zumwalt break down offensive linemen’s tells and technique errors with draft analyst Josh Norris. Coaches have raved about his work ethic and love for football, a passion that is apparent when watching Zumwalt on tape.
The question for me then isn’t if Zumwalt can play for the Steelers, it is where he will play. Inside linebacker was the position the former Bruin filled for 22 of his 30 collegiate starts, and where he started 12 of 13 games during his senior year at UCLA. But with the inside linebacker spot becoming one of the strongest on the Steelers roster, Zumwalt may have to utilize his oft-heralded versatility in order to make a defensive impact in Pittsburgh.
One of the bigger advantages for Zumwalt coming into the Pittsburgh organization was his previous experience in a 3-4 defense from his time at UCLA. While his versatility was often mentioned in draft circles, Zumwalt really only started five games as a 3-4 outside linebacker in college, including four as a junior and one as a senior (his other three starts came as a 4-3 weakside ‘backer as a sophomore). That isn’t much experience at a spot he could be asked to prove himself at this summer, especially considering the complex nature of the position in the Steelers 3-4 defense.
Here’s where some positives for Zumwalt could come to light however.
First, the linebacker has already had a year to digest the defensive schemes and learn under the tutelage of Dick Lebeau, Keith Butler, and Joey Porter. We know from watching Jarvis Jones that the Steelers intricate defense (at least under Lebeau) can be especially strenuous on the outside linebackers, not just from a physical perspective but also a mental one. But couple the time Zumwalt has spent studying the scheme with the competitive fire we know already burns within the former UCLA star, and the mental part of the game could be the easiest for the linebacker to come by.
Second, while the road at inside linebacker appears daunting at best, outside linebacker is much more of a question mark in Pittsburgh. Bud Dupree still has much to learn, while Jones has struggled with injury and consistency during his first two years in the league. James Harrison is aging quickly and has dealt with back issues in recent years, while Arthur Moats has spent most of his career as a rotational/reserve player. All four should make the roster over Zumwalt, but in case of an injury or development issue, does Zumwalt become the team’s next option? Given his year in the system, considerable football intelligence, and burning desire to prove himself, it is natural to assume Zumwalt would be the most logical next man up over fellow competitors Anthony Chickillo, Shawn Lemon, or Howard Jones.
I’m dealing with some hypotheticals, I know, but given the propensity for injury and/or an average level of play within the Steelers’ current outside linebacker corps, I’m not sure Zumwalt is as out-of-the-picture as many believe he is. The team could easily decided to roll with his positional versatility over the more defensively-limited Terence Garvin, carrying Zumwalt as their ninth linebacker.
But that won’t happen unless the lanky linebacker if given the opportunity to prove himself off the edge. When he played there for UCLA, his duties involved more run-stopping read-and-react assignments than making an impact as a pass rusher, so he’s rather untested in that department. Zumwalt has the frame, instinctive abilities and ideal linear burst to man the perimeter, but his short arms and small hands could hurt him setting the edge.
I know full well that Zumwalt is a long shot to make the Steelers roster, and I also know that his play on special teams will likely be the definitive factor that decides his fate in Pittsburgh (in the likely battle between he and Garvin). But the kid can play football, of that I have no doubt. The question might just be whether he can do it at outside linebacker or not. The next step for Zumwalt may not come in Pittsburgh, but if it does, his best shot could be at an outside linebacker position with plenty of question marks, both for the Steelers and for the former UCLA standout.