This is another in a series examining the Steelers' roster on a position-by-position basis as we count down the days to the opening of the team's 2015 training camp at Saint Vincent College.
There will be 14 of them at Saint Vincent College when training camp opens, and four of those 14 entered the league as No. 1 draft picks. Clearly the Steelers have invested in this important position, and it's time for that investment to start paying dividends.
Like the situation at so many other positions, the Steelers go into this 2015 training camp with a pretty good idea of 'who' their linebackers will be, but it's the 'how much' will they contribute to the defense that's going to end up telling the tale. The starters when camp opens are going to be Arthur Moats, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, and Jarvis Jones, and it would help if those four got to spend a lot of time on the practice fields together this summer. Shazier had his development as a rookie slowed by a training camp injury.
"Well, when I talked to Ryan he was disappointed with last year, not playing a lot," said inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky. "He has to realize it's a different game than college, and he's not head and shoulders above everyone athletically. There are a lot more people closer to him in terms of ability. So we're working on things, keeping his legs clean. He got hurt because he got rolled-up twice. If you don't get rolled up, then you don't get hurt."
And if you don't get hurt, the rhythm that develops from repetitions together begins to show itself in games.
Check out photos of Steelers linebackers who are competing for a roster spot heading into the 2015 training camp.
Like Shazier, Jones is a former No. 1 pick who has had his development slowed by injury. There were some nicks during camp in 2013, but the big injury for him was the dislocated wrist in the third game of the 2014 season. At the time he was hurt, Jones had two sacks plus a pressure in five halves of football.
"I thought Jarvis was playing good last year until he got hurt," said outside linebackers coach Joey Porter, "so it doesn't bother me on how it ended last year with Jarvis."
When Jones came to the Steelers as the 17th player drafted in 2013, he was coming off two seasons at Georgia where he led the NCAA in sacks both times, where he had 28 sacks in 26 games. It's believed Jones will be productive in the NFL, because he has shown a knack for being around the football. This Steelers defense is going to need a big dose of that.
"I've been encouraged with Jarvis," Porter said. "I think Jarvis has had a good offseason. He's getting stronger. He's doing some things that he knows he needs to do to get better for this year. He's not naive to know what he's done so far. It doesn't meet his standards, and he knows there's a lot more in there."
The development of Jones and Shazier, both as individuals and as components in their defensive unit, is a box that must be checked off during this training camp. Timmons is the third No. 1 pick among the starters, and he turned in a Pro Bowl season in 2014. Arthur Moats figures to open the season as the starter at left outside linebacker, with the hope being that 2015's No. 1 pick – Bud Dupree – can become a contributor in situations as the season progresses.
There is depth here, too. Nice depth. In addition to Dupree, the second group includes Sean Spence and Vince Williams as inside linebackers, and there is James Harrison backing up Jones on the right side. Porter explained the plan during the draft as being one where Harrison is subbed into games for around 25 snaps per, and he reiterated that as the offseason program was concluding.
"He's a professional," said Porter about Harrison. "He's been in this league a long time, and it is what it is. I'm not here to make a deal with anybody. I'm here to coach my position. No matter the situation, he knows I have his best interest in mind, and I've said it before. He knows where we are, and he's going to give me what I ask him to give me."
That's eight linebackers right there, and eight was the number of linebackers on the 53-man roster when the Steelers opened the 2013 season. Injuries certainly are going to be a factor, because they always are, and while injuries to the front-line players certainly might slow overall development, injuries to guys at the bottom of the depth chart will kill any realistic chance of them making the team.
The other six players at this position cannot allow themselves to get bogged down in playing the numbers game, because each one has something going for him that could allow him to make this team. Those six include Shawn Lemon, Howard Jones, Anthony Chickillo, Jordan Zumwalt, Terence Garvin, and Shayon Green. And understand that Garvin was one of the eight on the roster last year because he makes a lot of tackles on special teams. His 15 tackles on special teams last season, in fact, tied him for the tam lead with Vince Williams.
Fans attending one or more of the 18 practices to be open to the public during this camp can see for themselves whether Lemon flashes the pass rush ability that helped him post 13 sacks in the CFL last year; whether Jones is any more ready to play in the NFL now that he's one year further removed from playing his college football for the Shepherd Rams; whether Zumwalt or Chickillo turns out to be the better sixth-round draft pick; and whether Green can overcome the two serious knee injuries he sustained in college.
Yes, the competition is going to be fierce among the linebackers during training camp. How many of them are going to make the team? And how many of those who make the team are going to make a difference?