The Pittsburgh Steelers are entering what has the potential to be a transitional period for their group of inside linebackers, one of the bedrock positions of any 3-4 defense and perhaps the deepest position group on the entire roster. There exists the potential for great turnover within the group over the course of the next two years.
But the Steelers may well be advised to go against that.
The only player within that group that figures to be a fixture for an extended period of time would be Ryan Shazier, in whom the Steelers invested a first-round draft pick in 2014, after which they immediately plugged him into the starting lineup.
In 21 career games, with 17 starts, Shazier has logged 123 total tackles, recording 3.5 sacks, an interception, and two fumbles, the bulk of which came this past season when he played in and started 12 games, missing four games due to a shoulder injury.
Outside of Shazier, questions remain. Lawrence Timmons, a nine-year veteran who will turn 30 before he plays another down, ended the season with fine numbers—119 tackles, five sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble—but a deeper evaluation of his play showed clear signs of deterioration, and there has been a clear downward trend in his pass coverage.
Given his substantial cap hit, the front office will obviously want to lower it in some form or fashion, but a release—which would produce over $6 million in dead money—would be unlikely. Ed Bouchette has proposed that the team could ask him to take a pay cut. Other possibilities, such as a modest extension with no new money, would spread his cap hit out over a few years.
Regardless of the two starters, the Steelers have two valuable outside linebackers hitting free agency, namely Sean Spence, who has played an important role the past two seasons as the primary backup to Shazier, and Terence Garvin, who is a tremendously valuable special teams player who could potentially serve a role on defense.
Under contract for the 2016 are three other linebackers: Vince Williams, Jordan Zumwalt, and L.J. Fort. How these three players work to shape the inside linebacker position over the next year or two could be interesting, though the very real possibility exists that they have negligible impact.
The prime mover of this group is obviously Williams, a three-year player who has seen playing time in every season, often as a rotational option. He is also a valuable special teams player, and the only true alternative to play the buck position. He is in the final year of his contract, and I would imagine the team is interested in keeping him around for a while.
Zumwalt has spent the past two seasons on the sidelines on injured reserve, and has had very limited work during the preseason in that time, but he will have a chance yet again to make some sort of impact for himself in 2016 to make the 53-man roster.
Fort, however, is a player who ended the season on the 53-man roster as a sixth inside linebacker. A bit of a veteran journeyman who has been primarily a special teams player, he was a late camp addition and flashed potential in the preseason. The Steelers kept him on the practice squad all year before promoting him for injury-related concerns on special teams.