Though the news just broke, and hey, it’s great news for a former sixth round pick who has worked hard and unquestionably earned his contract, Vince Williams’ contract extension has an underlying message stapled to it. This is Lawrence Timmons’ final year in Pittsburgh.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have opted against extending Timmons’ contract out, relieving them of his $15.1 million cap hit, and given Williams a three-year deal. Though financial terms aren’t known so far, and you can assume the actual figures will be relatively low, the team’s desire to get him locked in means they envision Williams as the starter in 2017.
Williams, even since his rookie season, has always been a part-time player. Per Football Outsiders, here’s his regular season defensive snap count since entering the league.
It’s been borne out of circumstance, dating back to his rookie year when Larry Foote tore a bicep in the opener against Tennessee, plugging the 6th round pick into part-time action. Though the team was careful with his snap count, opting to use a dime defense with Troy Polamalu spending a lot of time in the box, it was their first look at the aggressive, smack-you-in-the-mouth player they had in Williams.
That dime defense may have been a huge factor in deciding to roll with Williams. The biggest knock on him has been his coverage. But it’s always been over exaggerated, a portrait of a two down thumper who would trip over his own two feet if he even thought about flipping his hips. Reminiscent of the platitudes “Ethan Albright” sent to John Madden after being named the worst player in the video game.
It may be difficult for the Steelers to employ this season but when fully healthy, it’s clear they want to use six defensive backs in many third down situations. That mitigates those problems if Williams won’t be used often on 3rd and 8, replaced by a safety, just as Timmons was late last season.
And this is still a Vince Williams who I watched run step-for-step down the right sideline this past training camp, blanketing Le’Veon Bell and forcing an incompletion. That is to acknowledge that yes, he is no Ryan Shazier. He’s not even an in-his-prime Timmons. But his skillset is good enough for linebackers who are going to be asked to sit in zone coverage most of the time. Shazier will handle the difficult roles, each being played to their strengths.
It would take Rio-worthy mental gymnastics to envision a scenario in which Timmons is on the 2017 roster, even understanding there isn’t big-money tied up in Williams. He was replaced by Robert Golden beginning in Week 14 last season, taken off the field as the Steelers opted for their dime defense.
Timmons may have just turned 30 but the mileage is plenty. His 110 starts match the 38 year old James Harrison. It’s been a great career but the Steelers’ front office has always taken the cold reality of a player’s decline head on, willing to discard someone once they outlive their usefulness, or if someone new can do the same for cheaper. It’s a component that doesn’t mesh with the bromides of what makes up the “Steelers Way,” if there even is such a thing, but it’s a critical part to their success.
That reality shouldn’t underscore just how good Timmons has been. He was, and it’s really crazy to think about, the first player Mike Tomlin ever drafted, a 234 pound linebacker out of Florida State. And in return, all Timmons did was start every game for the last five seasons, again, 110 in total, leading the team in tackles and reliability year after year.
He has been the Steelers’ Iron Man in an era where that term faintly exists. That’s meant playing injured, including a turf toe injury that likely bothered him for most, if not all, of last season. It isn’t even just about the number of starts but the number of plays that makes Timmons’ longevity so impressive.
These are Timmons’ regular season snap count percentages from 2012 to 2014.
99.6% – 2012
100% – 2013
98.7% – 2014
Until the team decided to remove him last year, Timmons logged every single snap, the last defensive player in the entire league to stay in triple digits.
And though we think about him being routinely removed from the field, he still played 95.7% of the snaps a year ago, totaling up nearly 120 tackles and five sacks.
It’s the kind of career, when you get into the specifics, that’s hard to come by. And one that Williams, a talented, fierce player who deserves the chance to start, will never reach. That isn’t a slight against him but a testament to the career Timmons has achieved.
Of course, Timmons’ isn’t dead. Heck, he isn’t going anywhere this season. His cap hit, and still, his play, is going to make him an every-week starter. He’ll be steady and consistent, just as he’s been since becoming a full-time starter in 2009. He exhibits all the traits you look for in a player, a flawless performance on and off the field.
There was never another story with him. There was only football.
Super Bowl champion.