Labriola on the linebackers

(The following is part of a position-by-position analysis of the Steelers roster at the start of training camp.)

The only possible question concerning the Steelers' starters here is whether they represent the best group in the NFL. The Steelers have been using a 3-4 defense for over a generation now, and these starters – James Harrison, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley – might be the best quartet in franchise history. A case can be made for the Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland, Kevin Greene foursome, but you get the idea.

Behind the starters is where it gets interesting, and that's precisely the way Coach Mike Tomlin likes it.

The lone savvy veteran in the mix is Larry Foote, who left as an unrestricted free agent after starting on two Super Bowl champions here and was brought back one year later because of what he contributed to those teams.

Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester are a couple of second-year pros whose primary contributions last season were on special teams. They also are a couple of second-year pros who will be expected to do more than only that this season. There is particular hope for Worilds as a position player, but his learning of the complex outside linebacker spot was retarded by the absence of an offseason. But he is talented, and the coaching staff will push him hard this summer.

Chris Carter, a fifth-round pick from Fresno State, is typical in that he was an undersized pass-rushing defensive end in college, and he'll get a chance to show he has enough to stick on the roster and learn. But the reality for Carter, as well as the others stacked on the depth chart here, is that special teams will have a significant impact on the awarding of the final few roster spots. In that respect, the absence of Keyaron Fox creates an obvious opening. The special teams captain last year, Fox was an unrestricted free agent who had not been brought back to the team as of Aug. 1. If he is re-added to the mix, that could mean one fewer spot for a young guy.

Maybe the most intriguing undrafted rookie in this camp is inside linebacker Mario Harvey. At 6-foot, 250 pounds, Harvey was a tackling machine at Marshall. Now it's not that unusual for a middle linebacker to make a lot of tackles, or at least get credited with making a lot of tackles, but Harvey also made plays on defense. He rolled up 20 sacks, and as a senior he had seven passes defensed. The Steelers brought Harvey to Pittsburgh for a pre-draft visit, but didn't end up selecting him.

Chris Ellis spent a part of 2010 on the Steelers practice squad, Baraka Atkins, Chris McCoy and Mortty Ivy all were free agents signed to futures contracts back in January, and Erik Clanton is another undrafted rookie.

The Steelers kept eight linebackers last season, and that has been the way they've entered most regular seasons recently.

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