The Pittsburgh Steelers cut ties with veteran linebacker James Farrior early in March and the move really wasn\’t a surprise. In releasing Farrior the Steelers lost their defensive captain and signal caller and their 14 year mainstay at the BUCK linebacker position.
The primary job of the BUCK linebacker in the Dick LeBeau 3-4 defense is to take on lead blockers and read and react to the play. The BUCK general diagnosis the offense during pre snap and calls out the changes based on what he sees. He is an integral part of the defense and Farrior did it well for so many years.
With Farrior now gone the Steelers will most likely turn to Larry Foote in 2012 to start the season. He did an adequate job filling in for Farrior in 2011 and certainly understands the nuances of the defense. The downside is that Foote will be 32 years of age by the time the season starts and he is entering his final year under contract. The Steelers hope he has one more season in him while they groom the long term buck successor.
When you look at the candidates rights now behind Foote on the roster you see Stevenson Sylvester and Mortty Ivy. Sylvester has played less that 75 snaps on defense since being drafted in the 5th round of the 2010 draft and looks best suited to back up Lawrence Timmons at the MACK linebacker position. Ivy is a converted outside linebacker, who could be a dark horse this year. He has been around the team long enough now to understand the defense and he will certainly have the most to gain during the mini-camp and OTA sessions this offseason. You have to keep in mind that both he and Sylvester saw their development hampered last offseason due to the lockout. While both looked good in training camp last year, it was not enough time for them to completely make a jump.
Regardless of the jump that both Ivy and Sylvester make, the Steelers will most certainly draft an inside BUCK type linebacker in the upcoming draft. If it is to be in the first round, the likeliest targets will be Luke Kuechly out of Boston College or Dont\’a Hightower out of Alabama. I currently have Kuechly rated the highest of the two, but it is doubtful at this point in time that he will fall to the 24th spot where the Steelers pick. Should Kuechly get in striking range, it certainly could be worth the Steelers moving up if they felt they could not live with Hightower.
Both Kuechly and Hightower have the smarts to be eventual signal callers and both are well suited for the BUCK role with their ability to take on and shed blockers. Both play extremely well when moving down hill. The question with both is their ability to drop into coverage. Neither seemed primed to be good initially in man coverage, but both can certainly play in zone drops. The awareness that both have shown on tape is pretty impressive though and that should translate over at the next level.
The biggest knock on Hightower might be his weight and if he will have the discipline to keep it under control while not loosing his power at the next level. Both he and Kuechly should be able to contribute instantly on special teams and another plus is that they are both coming out after their junior years, just like the Steelers like their potential first rounders.
Should neither Kuechly nor Hightower be the pick in round one, it could be a few rounds before the Steelers draft the BUCK position as the talent level drops off quickly after Kuechly and Hightower. Mychal Kendricks out of California and James-Michael Johnson out of Nevada would both present good value at the end of the fourth round, but both come with quite a few holes and question marks as well.
Regardless of which BUCK prospect the Steelers draft in April though, it is hard to imagine that player making any significant contribution in his rookie season outside of special teams. For now the buck will stop with Foote and Ivy initially and that buck could be passed in 2013 to either Kuechly or Hightower, if the Steelers are able to draft either of the two next month.
Tell me your favorite BUCK linebacker prospect in the upcoming draft and why.