By Cian Fahey
Reading too much into the words of Kevin Colbert or Mike Tomlin is most definitely a rookie mistake for anyone who\’s listening. However there was one notable excerpt from the comments of Tomlin and Colbert at the recent NFL meetings this past week which I can\’t help but put some credence in.
When talking to Pat Kirwan and Tim Ryan of SiriusXM NFL Radio, Colbert said “Yeah, inside we\’ve had Larry Foote the last two seasons as a real good insurance policy and Stevenson Sylvester, a kid we drafted a couple of years ago, will compete with Larry for James\’ spot.”
Now while many were quick to crown Sylvester as the team\’s future starter at linebacker after a few preseason displays and special teams exertions, I\’ve always been cautious with evaluating him because, as outsiders, people tend to get carried away with athleticism and not understand the true intricacies that it takes to be a professional football player.
Sylvester obviously has an abundance of physical talent and the presence to form an intimidating duo with Lawrence Timmons inside, but whether he has even fully grasped the Steelers\’ scheme is a completely different thing.
He played outside linebacker, in a very different scheme, in college but has spent the past two seasons learning the position behind those who know it better than anyone: Foote and James Farrior. With Farrior moving on and Foote being an aging veteran, the Steelers were potentially in the market for another body inside whether it be through free agency or the draft.
However, the fact that Colbert talked about Sylvester as a potential starter opposed to just saying they have him as another body at the position, is a very good sign for Sylvester.
Impressive play in limited action and special teams doesn\’t always translate to defensive football. The Steelers have had some success instilling players through special teams into their defensive scheme in the past however, most notably Brett Keisel in recent times, and if Sylvester is following in Keisel\’s footsteps, that gives the team a huge boost for their off-season avenues to explore.
While Dave has already explored the idea of bringing in David Hawthorne as a late free agency gem, as he, much like myself, is not 100 percent convinced of Sylvester\’s abilities to step up, I am perfectly happy to move forward with Foote for the coming season if Sylvester is progressing well enough to be a long-term starter in his place.
Foote, in my opinion, should have been starting last year in Farrior\’s place so I don\’t expect any drop-off from the position next season with him as the starter. If Foote can hold down the proverbial fort for the next year, and Sylvester is showing enough promise to be the starter the following season, then the Steelers\’ flexibility this off-season grows.
Many of those who understand the upcoming NFL draft, specifically the talent available, in detail potentially see the Steelers taking an inside linebacker in the first round such as Luke Kuechly or Dont\’a Hightower.
If Sylvester is stepping up, the Steelers can forget about any inside linebackers for another year or at least with the early picks this year. With Jason Worilds ready to step in for James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in place outside, the Steelers could completely forget about linebackers this year (although, I doubt they will).
Instead, the Steelers have the option of trying to finish of the re-tooling of their defensive line which has taken place over the past few drafts with a new nose tackle. That is not a guarantee either though, as Colbert once again (I know, rookie mistakes, but stick with me!) didn\’t completely rule out the prospect of Willie Colon moving to guard.
Colon would move to guard in one of two situations. Either Max Starks would be fully healthy and re-sign with the team, or the Steelers would draft a tackle in the first round. The Steelers, under Colbert, will most likely stick to their mantra of taking the best player available in the first round, but this year they could have a few options because of the position they are in.
If it is a choice between adding a tackle, guard or inside linebacker of a certain level, you can all but guarantee that the team won\’t be taking the linebacker (presuming that Sylvester is stepping up). The Steelers do generally take the best player available, but this year they have very few, but very definite, holes on the roster.
If Sylvester removes one of those holes, then the possibility of trading up also becomes available. The Steelers roster is relatively deep compared to most in the NFL. With a new nose tackle, offensive tackle or guard, the team doesn\’t really have any pressing needs.
You can follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf