Change can provide new opportunities

Every NFL player shares the same feeling, that they have what it takes to be a starter in the league. That if they are given the opportunity, they can get the job done.

But there are often obstacles in front of them, and for Steelers' linebacker Jason Worilds, that obstacle has been James Harrison, the Pro Bowl linebacker who has started ahead of him since he was a rookie.

Things have changed though. Harrison was released earlier this month, and that has opened a whole new world for Worilds. He now has every opportunity to prove he can handle the job and be that starter come September.

"I believe that Jason Worilds is chomping at the bit to prove he is capable of being that," said Steelers' Coach Mike Tomlin from the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, Arizona. "When I first got to Pittsburgh in 2007, and we had to let go of Joey Porter, there was a guy that came in my office that was ready to prove that he was capable of 900-1,000 snaps a year. His name was James Harrison.

"We will see what Worilds is capable of doing."

And with a laugh, he added, "No pressure."

Worilds, who started two games at left outside linebacker last year when LaMarr Woodley was injured, hasn't been in the spotlight like Woodley and Harrison, but don't doubt for a minute he hasn't been continuously learning and growing.

"I think if we all knew what James Harrison was capable of he would have played more than he did before 2007," said Tomlin. "But that's what this is. That's what change does. It provides opportunities for guys to ascend and take advantage of opportunities, and to carve out a niche or a name for themselves. I think that these competitors are challenged by that or encouraged by those opportunities that change presents."

Worilds, as well as cornerback Cortez Allen who could take advantage of the departure of free agent Keenan Lewis to New Orleans, understands the importance of seizing every opportunity that comes his way.

"My main focus has always been to get better every time I step on the field," said Worilds, the fourth-year linebacker. "My all around game has gotten better. I am more comfortable in my assignments, so I don't just go out there and not make a mistake, but go out there and make a play. I have been fortunate enough to transition easily from defensive end in college to an outside linebacker. You have to know your position, where to be and how it affects the man next to you. You have to know how important it is for you to do your job and the way you do your job. I want to do the right things, at the right time and the right way.

"Barring a few nagging injuries I have been able to do that and get better. I hope the coaches realize that and know I am going to continue to do so. That is my goal."

Tomlin understands that there are going to be changes in 2013, with Harrison, Lewis and wide receiver Mike Wallace three starters who are now gone, along with running back Rashard Mendenhall, a long-time starter whose playing time decreased last season when he started only four games.

"It's a challenge but it's a challenge that is part of our business," said Tomlin. "It's a challenge that I embrace. I think every year when the ingredients change, particularly significant ones, it's a coaching challenge. It's part of the game itself. Of course, we will be building it with some new ingredients in critical areas. It's up to us to make it come together. I am looking forward to that.

"I think any time there is a change, whether a replacement is in house or not, there's a certain amount of urgency that goes with that transition, and guys having to step up and deliver. I haven't pondered that from that standpoint of whether or not the answers are in house or not. The reality is that change is taking place, and it's something we better be prepared to deal with."

Tomlin also addressed a variety of other topics at the owners meetings, including the following:

  • Tomlin said nothing is happening right now with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, a restricted free agent who visited the New England Patriots, but despite reports did not receive an offer sheet from them.

"As of right now, he doesn't have an offer, so it's a moot point," said Tomlin. "That's something we will address as an organization if the situation develops. But based on the information we have right now, it's no news."

  • After finishing 8-8, and losing multiple starters, Tomlin said he isn't worried about the perception that the team is weaker now than they were at the end of the 2012 season.

"I'm not overly concerned in that regard," said Tomlin. "I know prognostication is what it is. I'm more concerned about building with the group of men that we are assembling right now, and seeing how that goes. I don't have a feel for that as we sit here today. We haven't started the building process in terms of phase one in our offseason conditioning program. I think that's when you can really start to get the feel of the components that are coming together, and of course after the draft, particularly as you move into OTAs, it will become clearer.

"Right now, we are just focused on the task that is in front of us, which is free agency and draft preparation."

  • With the departure of Wallace via free agency to the Miami Dophins, wide receiver is definitely a position that the Steelers will be looking to strengthen, but not the only one.

"We are trying to add talent at all positions," said Tomlin. "Obviously, wide receiver is one of them. When you lose a guy the caliber of Mike Wallace – we want to continually add to the talent at our depth. So we will have the opportunity to do that in a variety of fashions this spring, the draft being the primary one, but also recognizing that we are capable of doing something in free agency as well."

Tomlin added that while they will be looking to plug some holes, finding replacements for starters via free agency could be tough because of the salary cap.

"I think there is a desire to assemble the very best team we can assemble but obviously, we deal in a world of realism," said Tomlin. "We have some constraints from a salary cap standpoint that could limit some of those thoughts. I am not a big dreamer in that regard. I don't spend a lot of time looking at things that aren't practical. I approach it from the mindset of the constraints in which we are working from a salary cap standpoint, what is available to us, and of course how that measures with the draft talent."

Wallace, Lewis and Mendenhall signed deals that combined were worth over $90 million, something that Tomlin understands is part of the game.

"That's the NFL," said Tomlin. "I think that's what makes it an exciting product. Teams have an opportunity to ascend and get better and acquire talent. The system is put in place that creates parity. We are challenged to acquire new talent, to continue to develop the talent that we have and that's something we embrace.

"It's also a source of pride, when you see guys like Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis, who are third-round picks, develop into the types of players that they have developed into, and move on to new challenges. Hopefully we will acquire some new talent that helps those guys grow and develop in similar ways."

  • Tomlin said the team will definitely be looking to add another running back. Restricted free agent Jonathan Dwyer already signed his tender offer, but Mendenhall left via free agency to sign with the Arizona Cardinals, and Isaac Redman is a restricted free agent who has yet to sign his tender. He didn't say it would definitely be a feature back that is signed as it's all based on who is available.

"It just depends on what we get, what works and how it comes together," said Tomlin. "But obviously, we need to add to the pool of talent that we have at that position."

  • Tomlin is well aware of comments made by several of his players and others, claiming that there were issues in the locker room last year. Tomlin doesn't believe that there is a major problem, but rather frustration from finishing the season with a disappointing 8-8 record.

"I heard about it second hand," said Tomlin. "For me, the reality of it is we were an 8-8 team and that's probably more acceptable in some places than it is in our place. I hope that we've got a scalded group. I believe that we do. I'm not looking to put anyone at ease in that regard. We've got to get better in '13 and we've got to do better, obviously, than we did in '12. I think that we will have a group that's geared toward that."

Tomlin believes that despite losing several leaders over the last few years, that the team still has plenty of leadership in the locker room.

"I don't think we're devoid of leadership at all," said Tomlin. "We've got some quality, veteran players that know how to play, but beyond that they're good teammates. They know what championship-caliber team building is about. They put the good of the group in front of their own personal good. I think we've got great examples of quality leadership on our football team. We were 8-8 in 2012 and none of us liked that. Obviously, there are certain things that kind of come along with that and we're going to embrace it."

  • Tomlin said it was a tough decision releasing Harrison, who brought a lot to the team during his Pro Bowl career.

"James is a special guy and was a special player for us," said Tomlin. "It is a part of the business. We may never replace James but we will have an opportunity to strengthen ourselves in other areas. I think that's what you look at sometimes when you look at some of the things that have happened from a change standpoint. No, we won't be able to replace James. No, we won't be able to replace Mike Wallace. Those guys are who they are. But those voids will provide opportunities for us to strengthen ourselves in those areas and in others, and collectively maybe even make us stronger. I think that's an approach I always take to change. That's why I view it somewhat optimistically."

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