Player: Sean Spence
Position: Inside Linebacker
Free Agent Status: Unrestricted
2015 Salary Cap Hit: $676,345
2015 Season Breakdown: It was a long road for Sean Spence, the Steelers’ third-round draft pick as an inside linebacker in the 2012 NFL Draft. He suffered a career-threatening knee injury that involved nerve damage that wiped out his rookie season in the preseason, and then was unable to clear himself from the Physically Unable to Perform list in year two.
He was finally able to take the field in a meaningful NFL game in his third season after seeing extensive work in the preseason, but by then the team had already invested a first-round draft pick in Ryan Shazier at this position.
Still, Spence managed to find plenty of playing time for himself due to Shazier’s repeated injuries during his rookie season. In fact, he started nine game, logging just south of 500 snaps, recording 53 tackles and a sack.
Shazier suffered another injury this past year during his second season that wiped out a quarter of the season for him, during which it was Spence, primarily, who was asked to come in and man the position. On the year, he accumulated another 37 tackles in 270 snaps, as well as another sack.
His two-year body of work in what would be the equivalent of about roughly three quarters of a season or so shows the numbers at 90 tackles with two sacks, which prorated over the course of a full season would project out to be a pretty good year for an inside linebacker, to be sure.
But the numbers don’t paint the full picture, and while Spence at times has shown himself to be a very instinctive player with the ability to make plays almost before they happen due to his ability to diagnose the offense quickly, he has also struggled in coverage and has been quite susceptible to being taken out of plays due to his size.
I don’t know that the ‘starter’ label will ever been in Spence’s future, but he has nevertheless proven himself to be a valuable reserve for the Steelers defense over the course of the past two seasons, helping to turn the inside linebacker position not just to one of strength, but also one of depth.
Free Agency Outlook: Because of that depth, however, one can’t help but wonder if Spence’s future might lie outside of Pittsburgh. The Steelers already finished the regular season with six inside linebackers on the 53-man roster with the addition of L.J. Fort from the practice squad, and Jordan Zumwalt, drafted a year after Spence, has spent his career on injured reserve thus far.
Do the Steelers think that they have enough bodies already to get by without Spence, who has been a key cog in the defense when Shazier was out? If they can find a way to replace the backup mack position, then he is expendable. Regardless, one quality offer from another team should be enough to see him leave town, barring something unforeseen with Lawrence Timmons’s status.