The Pittsburgh Steelers apparently went pretty close to all in for the potential to land free agent inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower following the loss of Lawrence Timmons in free agency. Hightower spent several hours at the team’s facility on Tuesday, but it was announced yesterday that he would return to the Patriots on a four-year deal worth just a shade under $11 million per season.
That is more than double the previous high in terms of average annual income that the Steelers have ever handed out to an outside free agent, just as a reminder in case it was necessary. In the end, the team may very well be better off with their checkbook intact and Hightower staying put.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t continue to seek another alternative to the inside linebacker position, and that remains true even with the consideration of Vince Williams inheriting Timmons’ buck linebacker position.
Why? Because there is no apt replacement for Ryan Shazier at the mack position, who has demonstrated through his first three seasons that he is going to have an awfully difficult time playing a full season without getting banged up, an evidence-based perception that I for one would love to see him debunk.
In the meantime, however, what the Steelers have to work with as a backup at the mack are L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich, and Steven Johnson, none of whom cleanly profile as a mack linebacker. While Fort has gotten some positive attention by the coaching staff for his ability in coverage, the fact cannot be dismissed that he is the least likely of the three to make the roster.
After this fact was pointed out to me by a commenter yesterday, I couldn’t help but be set off pondering the Steelers options, and one potential alternative that I would find to be suitable is a reunion with their former third-round draft pick from the 2012 class, Sean Spence.
He, after all, has more experience than anybody filling in for Shazier while he misses games injured, which is what he did during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. If he can be had on a reasonable deal to be brought in to compete for a roster spot, I think that would greatly solidify their depth options.
Following four seasons in Pittsburgh, the first two of which were spent recovering from a career-threatening nerve injury (among other issues), Spence signed a one-year deal with the Titans and his former defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, for a salary of $2.5 million.
He played in 15 games last year, starting six of them, making 54 tackles with three sacks, three passes defensed, and a forced fumble, all of which, excepting the games played statistic, represent career-bests for him.
I have heard just one report of teams expressing interest in Spence, who by this time last season was actually already under contract with Tennessee on the third day of free agency, as the Colts brought him and multiple other inside linebackers in for a visit. It may well be in the cards for this reunion to happen.