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Labriola on Shazier vs. Vince

Posted Aug 3, 2014

Vince Williams is having a great camp, but Ryan Shazier deserves the starting job at ILB

LATROBE, Pa. – Let’s begin with a couple of facts, as of today:

Vince Williams is having an excellent training camp. Ryan Shazier is the starting inside linebacker next to Lawrence Timmons.

Last season, when the dust settled following Larry Foote’s season-ending biceps injury in the opener against Tennessee, Williams, a rookie sixth-round pick, emerged as the replacement starter. He started 11 games and finished with 42 tackles. Five months after Williams’ rookie season ended, the Steelers used a first-round pick on another inside linebacker and Coach Mike Tomlin promptly inserted the newbie into the starting lineup during the first OTA, into the starting lineup at what had been Williams’ spot.

Ryan Shazier was that No. 1 pick, and he has been in the starting lineup ever since, next to Timmons, even though Williams is the more “veteran” player, even though Williams has been lighting it up here at Saint Vincent College during the first week-plus of this camp.

But there is no sense of Shazier being handed something he doesn’t deserve, because he also has been a bright spot so far. He has been a bright spot in different ways, a bright spot in ways in which the Steelers defense was deficient last season.

At another time, in a different era of professional football, Vince Williams is precisely the kind of inside linebacker a defense needed. Tough, physical, good against the run. As scouts say, “a downhill player.” But contemporary offenses aren’t run-first anymore. There’s a lot of sub-package, multiple-receiver, spread-the-field stuff going on in the NFL these days, and that’s not Vince Williams’ forte.

It is, however, Ryan Shazier’s forte, and his speed and playmaking ability have been on display regularly so far in this, his first NFL training camp. During pass-rush drills, Shazier already is displaying moves that more seasoned players never develop, and once he gets a blocker on his heels looking for a swim move, for example, he has the power to run the guy over and is willing to do just that.

Vince Williams is having a great camp, and he will make the 53-man roster, and he is the kind of player championship teams need both for depth on defense and as a key member of the special teams coverage units. He’s just not a starter anymore, because the Steelers defense will be better with Ryan Shazier in that spot.

Now, on to some other matters:

* Jerricho Cotchery will be missed, both because of what he contributed on the field and because of the consummate professional he was. That said, Lance Moore will fill in seamlessly for Cotchery this season. Moore looks like he can be for Ben Roethlisberger what Wes Welker was for Tom Brady and is for Peyton Manning.

* One of the more underrated free agent signings in recent Steelers history – linebacker Arthur Moats. He is the third-best outside linebacker on this roster right now, and that status doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon.

* When the 2014 regular season is over and the final statistics are counted, Markus Wheaton could finish fourth on the team in receptions – behind Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, and Le’Veon Bell – but if his average per catch is close to 20 yards and he has a half-dozen receiving touchdowns the offense will have gotten what it needed from him in his second pro season and first as a starter.

* The Steelers will cut some players on Aug. 30 who go on to have nice careers with other teams. That wasn’t the case in the previous couple of summers, which is an indication of an overall roster upgrade.

* With so much promise surrounding Shazier, it’s easy to fall asleep on second-round pick Stephon Tuitt. That would be a mistake. He’s been receiving a lot of tough love from defensive line coach John Mitchell, but that’s a sign the Steelers believe he can be a contributor right away. Mitchell is trying to get him ready to play in regular season NFL games, instead of simply working with him as a developmental project.

* And finally, being that this is the 40th anniversary of the greatest draft class in NFL history – the Steelers’ Class of 1974 that brought the team four Hall of Fame players among the first five picks – it’s interesting to look back on how the group was judged in the immediate aftermath of the selections.

The following was written by a sports columnist in the Jan. 30, 1974 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette following the first five rounds of the 1974 NFL Draft, after the Steelers had picked Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, cornerback Jimmy Allen and Mike Webster:

“The Steelers seem to have come out of the first five rounds of the draft appreciably strengthened at wide receiver but nowhere else. They didn’t get a tight end, and the ones remaining are more suspect than prospect. They didn’t get a punter, although none of the nation’s best collegiate punters went in the first five rounds. They didn’t get an offensive tackle who might’ve shored up what could well become a weakness. What they did get was Swann, who seems to be a sure-pop to help; Lambert, who figures to be the No. 5 linebacker if he pans out; and three question marks.”

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