The Optimist’s Take: Staying Content At ILB

The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.

Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Can the Steelers afford to be content with what they currently have at inside linebacker?

Over the course of the offseason, the Steelers have already lost two of their three primary reserve inside linebackers when Sean Spence signed with the Titans and Terence Garvin joined the Redskins. Among players with experience with Pittsburgh, that leaves just Vince Williams behind the starters.

But more often than not, that is enough to get by. And, in fact, the Steelers have gotten by with less. After all, during Williams’ and Garvin’s rookie season in 2013, they, joined by inexperienced journeyman Kion Wilson, were the only depth behind the starters—basically three linebackers who have never really played before.

Williams has been an intriguing player for a number of years now, and it will be interesting to see him slip into a more elevated role as the top backup next season, assuming that the Steelers do not do anything significant to address the inside linebacker position.

They did recently bring in two linebackers for free agent visits, but did not sign either of them—one of them since re-signing with his former team. But they still have L.J. Fort under salary, who finished the 2015 season on the Steelers’ 53-man roster after spending most of the season on the practice squad.

Fort was a late training camp addition after he was claimed off waivers when the Patriots let him go. He participated in three preseason games and played well, registering seven tackles as well as a sack. The fact that he was kept on the practice squad despite being such a late addition—and despite having 11 other linebackers on the roster or practice squad—would seem to be a vote of confidence.

Fort is not a household name, nor is he a superstar, but he is a player who has been in the league for a few years now and knows what he’s doing, and more importantly, showed well in a Steelers uniform. He also has key special teams experience, which was Garvin’s primary function, and a large part of what Spence did as well.

Add into the mix Jordan Zumwalt, who has spent his first two seasons on injured reserve, and one might conclude that the Steelers can feel okay about where they are. Of course, they will have to add more bodies for training camp and to get through the preseason, in doing so creating competition. But they could already have the players that will ultimately be carried into the season on the roster now.

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