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

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.

  • The_Comedian

    At the pre-season before Timmons signed the huge contract extention, a video of Timmons during training camp was shown as being “unblockable”. He was a terror, lightning fast and as noted… “unblockable”.

    Fast forward a full season, what happened? Can those who know football x’s and o’s clue me in?

  • PoKey21

    Havent selected a Guard or Tackle in a decade. Must still be scared from the performance of Simmons. Also I think it is Very interesting that in the last 25 years the Steelers have only selected 9 Defensive players in the first round, as opposed to 16 Offensive players! I think we put too much emphasis, especially during the draft, on the fact that the Steelers are a defensive team. Personally, I dont think Hightower should buck the trend. I think the reason we dont draft LBs high is because our coaching staff is phenomenal at creating and shaping players with maybe less talent into the LBs that they want them to be. I think ILB in particular is a motor position, and the player needs to have more desire to be great, than athleticism (of course athleticism helps). I still say we go OL in the first, Tammu second, and take Tank Carder ILB in the third.

  • Kad964

    From everything I’ve seen on Hightower, he has the position flexibility the Steelers like. I don’t necessarily like him as a pick. I’d prefer to get a more athletic lb later. I don’t like anyone projected to be their at the 24th pick. I’d rather the Steelers trade back unless someone slips

  • The Steelers need to add talent at the ILB position, but I think everyone is too focused on players who were inside backers at the college level, when trying to anticipate the Steelers draft choice this season. First off, it’s rare that a player drafted by the Steelers, is brought in to play the position he played in college. Obviouisly, this has to do with players coming from 4-3 systems in college, transitioning to a 3-4 system, where the prototypical body types, and skill sets, are different.

    Anyhow, the point I’m trying to make, is that the Steelers are less concerned with the position someone played in college. They are looking for a player with a certain skill set, who fits the prototype of the type of player that they have had success with in their scheme. If you look back at the type of player the Steelers have had success with at ILB, you’re talking about player who are 6’1″-6’2″, and around 245 lbs. If you look at teams like San Francisco, Houston, and Green Bay, you’ll find the guys with the same measurables. If Hightower was a more fluid athlete, with good change of direction skills, then his size would be an asset.

  • Broderick Wallace

    I believe offenses would have their “hands full” with Polamalu and Hightower roaming around the box. Lebeau could have a field day, dailing up all kinds of blitzes. Steelers used to blitz on 3rd down, but Farrior’s ability to shed blockers declined after 2008 season.

    1 – Dont’a Hightower
    2 – Mychal Kendricks
    3 – Bobby Wagner

  • Moderatelysane

    There are certainly many scenarios in which Hightower is the BPA. If those scenarios present themselves, I think they’ll draft him. Let’s watch to see if he gets a visit. That should be informative. As an aside, “past performance is not a guarantee of future returns” regarding the draft. Case in point: the TE spot. It’s clear from your list that the Steelers like to draft TEs in the 1st. Should we then be certain to see Fleener’s name called for the B& G?

  • Derick

    lol i am impressed Dave. i like this write up 😉

  • Derick

    I just want to say it is rare college teams even play a defense with a true ILB. I did like the Hawthorne post Dave put up.

  • Grw1960

    I would have no problem with Hightower being the Steelers 1st round pick this year.
    During the Colbert tenure so far when they really want a certain player they trade up if they have to to get their player.
    Other than that the Steelers seem to take BPA. Though in the next 2 rounds a few times the Steelers seem to have targeted a couple players they wanted or had higher on their boards higher than most teams. ( Worilds and Gilbert)

  • Joe D

    They are NOT going to draft Hightower in the 1st round…
    1. Hightower is NOT 1st round quality…
    2. Steelers have other pressing needs… OL & DT.
    3. He will not be the best athlete available when the 24th pick comes along.

    1st round… OL (lots of quality to pick from at the 24)
    2nd round… NT… Tamu.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    The Steelers will take the BPA from a list of need positions. That is their MO, and they will follow it.

  • Chrispaciello

    I’m not convinced an ILB in a 3-4 defense is worthy of a 1st round pick in today’s NFL. Is he really going to play 3 downs, Timmons, Harrison, and Woodley aren’t coming off the field on passing downs. Are we going to go with 2 DLs, 4LB, 3CB, and 2 Safeties? I don’t like LBs covering WRs, no matter how fast they are.

  • Huskie

    I don’t think past drafts are at all indicatives of whether the Steelers will draft a certain position. I think our draft philosophy has always been to let the draft come to us and take the best player available as long as it does not completely go against the current needs. Like for instance, we wouldn’t take a QB even if one somehow fell right now. The Steelers seem to look for skill sets, needs, and also a certain type of mentality and toughness in players. I think in these ways Hightower fits and if he’s the best available we’ll take him cause he fills a need. I don’t think we know who we’re taking yet though, Colbert will let the draft come to him like he always does.

  • Sonny

    Timmons was miscast as na OLB, yes he’s quick but Tomlin was wrong. This past year they had him inside and outside because of injuries. Worilds needs to step up and Timmons should be better. Hightower may be a little stiff and slow but he’s smart. The guy from BC would be perfect and they should trade up to get him

  • Derick

    I am not going to claim I know x’s o’s that well BUT I think Timmons is just much better suited for a 43 defense. it is that simple imo.

  • Derick

    Hightower provides value and need going @ 24. it is only a bonus Hightower happened to play on a pro style defense under nick sabben’s 34. his skill set fits an ILB at this level pretty well and if Hightower is not a prototypical LB for the Steelers, idlk what is. i agree though his weight posses as a potential problem BUT I am hoping he keeps it under control with the NFL level of dietitians and work ethic that will surround him.

  • Derick

    I would hope they trade far back to get him. I don’t think they should do that because TE is not a pressing need as other positions this off season. Would be nice BUT the OG, NT, and ILB positions should be considered first.

  • Man532

    I think we are looking for a ILB to groom, because whoever we draft will not start day one and may not start in year 2. As a result, we may address ILB in the 3 or 4th round and develop a player who has the speed and agility, but needs coaching and strengthening. I like Mychal Kendricks at 4.7 40 yd dash, who can add bulk to his frame. He would be a terror on special teams daye one and could learn from Timmons, Foote, and Sly.

    Don’t count Sly out, this is his make or break year.

  • I think Bruce Irvin is a guy who can be coached up to play ILB. He has excellent speed, and change of direction. He’s not the biggest guy, but at 6’3″ and 245 lbs, he’s right around the size that the Steelers look for at ILB.

    I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the Steelers working with Chris Carter at ILB.

  • Ericreliford

    I think Hightower would be a great asset to the Steelers!!! I think he is a three down ILB , I think he’s a very smart player on top of it… If we dont land Hightower for some reason or another ..
    Ronnell Lewis (AKA THE HAMMER) would be the best ILB to draft

  • Dx2nc

    Need a reason why it took so long to get one for the thumb. Check out those first round picks from 1979 – 1991. Take out Rod & Lipps and you couldn’t have done any worse throwing darts at the draft board.

  • Derick

    I think it was the fact they passed on Marino AND never got a guy like Ben until 04′ since Bradshaw.

  • Derick

    if the only true knock on Hightower is being a 3 down LB, is that honestly a terrible knock as oppose to the other players that will be available. I want to think if he is drafted by the Steelers he will be around all NFL guys from trainers, coaches, to players and he WILL keep the weight down and be the very best he can be. He is a smart football player and ALREADY has experience playing the very position we need him for. thoughts….

  • Derick

    I agree Greig, I don’t see Carter @ ILB what so ever. I am interested in what Martty Ivy can do this training camp. I liked him when I did see him in person.

  • mghjr88

    Bobby Wagner 2nd round maybe?