It was important for Jason Worilds to get his contract done before the start of training camp. Not important in that the Steelers need him to step in as a starter on defense, or even as someone expected to play a significant role this season. But it still was important.
It was important for Worilds to be signed and in camp on time because he is a 22-year-old who is having to adjust to the highest level of competition his profession offers while at the same time having to learn a new position. Not a simple matter, to be sure, and having to play catch-up at such an early point in a career would have meant an extra burden on Worilds.
But all of it was avoided when Worilds agreed on a four-year contract with the Steelers, and he will be in uniform for the team's first practice, to be held on Saturday, July 31. He becomes the ninth of the team's 10 draft picks to sign a contract. First-round selection Maurkice Pouncey is the only unsigned rookie.
For close to 20 seasons now, the Steelers have been using a defensive scheme that requires the outside linebackers to be able to rush the passer as well as drop into coverage, and on top of both of those things to be able to hold the point of attack against the run. Their preferred method of coming up with these types has been to draft athletic-but-undersized college defensive ends and develop them into guys who have become integral parts of a Steelers defense that is often imitated but rarely duplicated.
Since 1992, some of the players who have lined up at outside linebacker for the Steelers are Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Jason Gildon, Chad Brown, Joey Porter, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. All of them have been voted to the Pro Bowl, but none of them were full-time starters as rookies.
"You've got an NFL Defensive Player of the Year (in James Harrison on one side), another guy who's made the Pro Bowl with him last year (in LaMarr Woodley on the other side)," said linebackers coach Keith Butler in reference to the top of the depth chart at outside linebacker. "It's going to be hard to get on the field for him this year. I will never say never, but those two guys are pretty extraordinary. They don't like coming off the field, and I don't like taking them off the field, to be honest with you."
Still, that should not be taken to mean that Worilds will enjoy a redshirt season in 2010, because with NFL rosters limited to 53 players there is no such thing. As a rookie, Worilds is certainly going to be looked upon to be an important part of the coverage units on special teams, and there's also no rule preventing him from showing enough to earn some snaps on defense during the regular season.
That is what Gildon did during his rookie season of 1994 and in a Nov. 20 game against the Miami Dolphins, he used one of those opportunities to come off the bench to beat All-Pro left tackle Richmond Webb and sack Dan Marino in the fourth quarter to force a punt in a game the Steelers won in overtime.
"We got two pretty good outside linebackers who are starters right now," said Butler. "We think this kid could come in and help us in terms of depth and help us on special teams as he learns the defense. Since I've been here we've never had a rookie linebacker start in this system. We like to groom them for a couple years and let them get their feet underneath them. The guys who have been successful here have always been good on special teams for us during their first couple years, and we think this guy will be in that mode."
As far as special teams, Worilds comes to the Steelers with an understanding of the importance of that phase of the game, having played at Virginia Tech under Coach Frank Beemer.
And with his contract settled, Worilds won't experience any delays in getting on with the pad-wearing phase of his development, which should enable him to build upon a fairly solid offseason.
"There is very little hesitation in his movement," said Coach Mike Tomlin when asked to evaluate Worilds at the end of OTAs in mid-June. "He is decisive and that shows a level of understanding. I'm excited about what he has done at to this juncture. The movement things, the awareness things, those aren't pad-related of course, but some of the things that show the development of a guy who has played with his hand on the ground and now has to stand up are not contact or pad-related. He has shown an aptitude for some of those things, which is encouraging."