STEELERS-BY-POSITION: Inside Linebackers


Another in a position-by-position series examining the Steelers roster in advance of the start of free agency on March 10:*

(Free Agent Scorecard: None)

Back in the 1990s, the Steelers had a guy who was listed as a running back but in truth was a special teams player by trade. His name was Fred McAfee, and he was a valuable part of the team because he was very good at what he did. After his two NFL seasons, Garvin is looking like another McAfee. Undrafted and ignored during the typical rookie free agent process in 2013, Garvin got a tryout during rookie orientation and showed enough to sign a contract to get himself to Latrobe. He made the roster and then finished third on the team with nine special teams tackles. This year, Garvin tied for the team lead with 15 special teams tackles. If he keeps this up, Garvin will be kept around.

Nix began his college career at Kent State as a 5-foot-10, 237 pound defensive lineman, and as a freshman he had 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, and four forced fumbles to become the only freshman to win the MAC Defensive Player of the Year award. Too small for the defensive line in the NFL, Nix will try to learn a new position with the Steelers. He will be 23 on March 30.


Photos of the Steelers Inside Linebackers during the 2014 season.

As is the case with Jarvis Jones, if this defensive makeover the Steelers currently are attempting is to be a success, Shazier has to emerge as a star. Like Jones, he was put into the starting lineup almost immediately, and like many young players entering the NFL Shazier is having to learn the difference between hurting and being injured. A knee contusion robbed him of valuable time in training camp, and then he missed seven full games over a nine-week span of the regular season with knee and ankle injuries. Shazier's 23rd birthday is on Sept. 9, and the Steelers have to be hoping he does a lot of growing up by then, because he does have the skills.

The saga that began in 2012 is over, the quest to re-build his body and resurrect his dreams of an NFL career that began with that horrific knee injury in the preseason finale of his rookie year. Sean Spence is an NFL player, a contributing part of a team that finished 11-5 and won a division championship. He's no charity case. He belongs. As 2014 evolved, Spence split what had been Shazier's inside linebacker spot with Vince Williams. Spence finished third among linebackers with 54 tackles, and he added a sack, four pressures, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery. And remember, all of that came in what actually was his first NFL season.

For years his teammates and coaches told anyone who would listen how they believed Timmons belonged in the Pro Bowl, and this time his peers responded by voting him into the game. The numbers were: 141 tackles, two sacks, six pressures, and two passes defensed, but what Timmons also contributed in 2014 was a willingness to switch positions to make it easier for some of the younger inside linebackers to get onto the field and perform. The first No. 1 draft pick of the Mike Tomlin era, Timmons will be 29 in May and heading into his ninth NFL season. That's very unusual, that a player would be such a veteran and still so young. Timmons is a crucial cog in what the Steelers are wanting to do defensively.

When Larry Foote was injured in the 2013 opener and lost for the rest of that season, Williams soon emerged from a group of candidates to start 11 games and finish with 42 tackles. But then when Ryan Shazier was made a No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, Williams found his spot in the starting lineup was gone. Williams didn't allow that to deter him, and he had an excellent offseason and showed himself to be an improved player during the preseason. Once Shazier's injuries removed him from the equation, Williams was at inside linebacker next to Timmons when the Steelers were in their nickel, and Spence was at that spot in the base 3-4. One of those run-and-hit linebackers that Mike Tomlin loves, Williams has what is known in the business as the "proper playing demeanor."

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