2012 Draft

History Shows Inside Linebackers Ignored By Steelers In First Round Of Drafts

You never know what will crop up in the comments section on this site, but I am proud to say that quite a few of the readers here are well informed when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The latest discussion centers around the Steelers potentially drafting Alabama inside linebacker Dont\’a Hightower in the first round and as Greig eludes to in the comments section of another post, the Steelers have not drafted a true inside linebacker in the first round in the Super Bowl era.

Of course I know many of you will point to Lawrence Timmons, who the Steelers drafted in the first round of the 2007 draft. That is where the debate comes in from Derick. Was Timmons, who played outside linebacker at Florida State, drafted to be an inside linebacker. If you go back to the comments Head Coach Mike Tomlin made about Timmons right after that draft, he said, “we\’re a 3-4 team and he\’s a right outside linebacker.” To support the other side of the argument though, Tomlin, General Manager Kevin Colbert and linebacker coach Keith Butler all admitted that Timmons had the ability to also can play inside in the 3-4.

So I guess we are in a chicken and the egg type argument here. Did they draft Timmons to be an outside linebacker or an inside linebacker or both? The analogy was brought up by a reporter during the post draft pressers that Timmons was like fitting a square peg in a round hole. I think we can at least agree that the Steelers saw Timmons as the best player and athlete available on the board when they picked, and thought he was versatile enough to play both outside and inside. Five years later we know that Timmons can only play the MACK linebacker spot inside, as he did not fare well when asked to play outside when James Harrison was out injured last year.

Let us now move forward from that argument and look at the Steelers first round draft history in the Super Bowl era as it relates to drafting inside linebackers. As the table shows below, the Steelers have only drafted two other linebackers other than Timmons in the first round dating back to 1966. Those two players were Huey Richardson in 1991 and Robin Cole in 1977. Both were considered outside linebackers at the time they were drafted after playing defensive end in college. So depending on what you or the Steelers thought Timmons was when he was drafted, the Steelers have drafted either zero or one inside linebackers in the first round in the Super Bowl era.

Steelers 1st Round Draft History In Super Bowl Era

YEARPICK#PLAYERPOSSCHOOL
201131Cameron HeywardDEOhio State
201018Maurkice PounceyCFlorida
200932Ziggy HoodDTMissouri
200823Rashard MendenhallRBIllinois
200715Lawrence TimmonsLBFlorida State
200625Santonio HolmesWROhio State
200530Heath MillerTEVirginia
200411Ben RoethlisbergerQBMiami (Ohio)
200316Troy PolamaluSUSC
200230Kendall SimmonsGAuburn
200119Casey HamptonNTTexas
20008Plaxico BurressWRMichigan State
199913Troy EdwardsWRLouisiana Tech
199826Alan FanecaGLouisiana State
199724Chad ScottCBMaryland
199629Jamain StephensTNorth Carolina A&T
199527Mark BruenerTEWashington
199417Charles JohnsonWRColorado
199323Deon FiguresCBColorado
199211Leon SearcyTMiami (Fla.)
199115Huey RichardsonLBFlorida
199021Eric GreenTELiberty
19897Tim WorleyRBGeorgia
198924Tom RickettsGPittsburgh
198818Aaron JonesDEEastern Kentucky
198710Rod WoodsonCBPurdue
19869John RienstraGTemple
198520Darryl SimsDEWisconsin
198423Louis LippsWRSouthern Mississippi
198321Gabe RiveraNTTexas Tech
198212Walter AbercrombieRBBaylor
198117Keith GaryDEOklahoma
198028Mark MaloneQBArizona State
197928Greg HawthorneRBBaylor
197822Ron JohnsonCBEastern Michigan
197721Robin ColeLBNew Mexico
197628Bennie CunninghamTEClemson
197526Dave BrownCBMichigan
197421Lynn SwannWRUSC
197324J.T. ThomasCBFlorida State
197213Franco HarrisRBPenn State
19718Frank LewisWRGrambling State
19701Terry BradshawQBLouisiana Tech
19694Joe GreeneDTNorth Texas
196810Mike TaylorTUSC
19663Dick LeftridgeFBWest Virginia

Is this all a big coincidence or do the Steelers just not value the inside linebacker position enough to draft one in the first round? Has the first round talent, depth of the class and draft spot from year to year played a large role in this pattern? Of course you could point to the center and safety position as being ignored in the first round of the draft by the Steelers in the Super Bowl era as well. Only Maurkice Pouncey in 2010 and Troy Polamalu in 2003 have been the exceptions at those two positions.

Back to Hightower now. There is a very good chance that he could still be on the board when the Steelers pick in the first round of this upcoming draft and he is the second best inside linebacker behind Luke Kuechly in a not so deep class of inside linebackers. Unless the Steelers sign an inside linebacker free agent like David Hawthorne between now and draft day, it will be a position of need headed into the draft. There are questions about Hightower still as it relates to him being a three down linebacker at the next level. He can play the run inside and get after the quarterback, but can he be effective at the next level in coverage?

Perhaps the real question that should be asked is if he has position flexibility to play outside in the Steelers 3-4 defense, should he wind up not being a three down inside linebacker? In my opinion he can. Could Hightower wind up being a case similar to Timmons in that he is the best player available on the board, with the best value and the Steelers will find a spot for him? I think that very well could be possible. Perhaps Hightower is a round peg that needs to be fit into a square hole and perhaps he will be just the fourth linebacker the Steelers have drafted in the first round in the Super Bowl era.

Leave your thought in the comments as to why you think the Steelers ignore inside linebackers in the first round and if Hightower should be an exception to this. Thanks to Greig and Derick for inspiring this post. Have at it people.

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