Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds is about to enter his third season since being drafted in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft. Several in Steeler Nation are still struggling to understand why inside linebackers Sean Lee or Navarro Bowman weren\’t the pick instead of Worilds. Linebackers coach Keith Butler was asked that very question during his press conference following the selection of Worilds and said, “We like those guys. We like Bowman, I especially like Sean Lee. But those guys are inside linebackers right now. And we have a pretty good quartet of guys at inside linebacker. Outside linebacker we need some depth on this football team at outside linebacker. And we need better special teams then we had last year and we think this guy can help us in that area quickly.” When asked what the Steelers liked best about Worilds, Butler replied, “Speed, but more than anything that he was fluid. He’s not a guy that you expect to stand up. A lot of guys you stand up early kind of struggle with opening their hips and dropping in pass coverage. That’s always the question we have on what we call “hybrids.” He was able to do things that we wanted him to do that we think he can do in this system. It was a matter of us projecting him in this system and I think he’s a good fit for us.”
So here we are now two years later and Worilds has played less than 600 snaps total on defense. He likely would not have even played that many had it not been for the injuries suffered last season by LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. That being said, Worilds could have played quite a bit more had he not been sidelined with his own hamstring problems. He did show flashes last year on the left side while Woodley was sidelined, but also looked inconsistent as well, especially against the run.
Knowing that Woodley and Harrison will be the starters in 2012, how will Worilds get on the field in his third season? Sure, he can spell both players on the outside, but this is a second round draft pick entering his third season in the league now that we are talking about. One would expect him to start contributing in greater capacity outside of just special teams. Sure, 2012 could likely be the final year for Harrison, but that is not guaranteed, especially if he is able to bounce back in the quarterback pressure and sack department. He is signed through 2014 just in case.
Scout Dave-Te Thomas, who has been on a few of our recent podcast, suggested that Worilds could be making the move inside this year. Thomas and Worilds have the same agent, and Thomas is pretty convincing that this could happen. Does he know something the rest of us don\’t? Really there has been no real indication that Worilds will be moving inside though, but of course the fan base would be the last to know it. Worilds does have the idea measurables, and is reportedly a pretty smart kid, but for a blogger like myself to suggest that move could happen would be mere speculation. One thing to keep in mind though is that James Farrior, who was the Steelers BUCK linebacker since he arrived via free agency, was also an outside linebacker during his time with the New York Jets. The Jets pretty much gave up on Farrior, a former first round selection; after five seasons and he went on to have a great career inside for the Steelers. He of course was released just this offseason.
Any guesses as to where Farrior went to college? Virginia, the same school that produced Worilds. Now can we draw any hard evidence from that alone? No, but it is a weird coincidence. Tin foil hats anyone? ETA: BRAIN FART!!!!!!!!! (Farrior – Virginia) (Worilds – Virginia Tech)
Not to be forgotten is that the Steelers also drafted Thaddeus Gibson and Stevenson Sylvester in 2010 as well. Gibson was another outside guy, while Sylvester an inside guy. Just last April they drafted Chris Carter, yet another hybrid outside guy. Gibson is the only player not to stick thus far and to hear head coach Mike Tomlin talk, they expect 2012 to be a jump year for Sylvester, who in my opinion is better suited for the MACK role than he is the BUCK role in the limited playing time I have to analyze him. That means he could be best suited as backing up Lawrence Timmons, who signed a long extension last offseason. Larry Foote, who is entering his final year under contract, is currently slated to start the season at the BUCK spot with Sylvester backing him up. When you look at the linebackers on the roster that are speculated to make the 53 at this point, you come up with seven (Woodley, Harrison, Timmons, Foote, Worilds, Carter, Sylvester). Odds are they will not carry more than nine when they break camp, so it is obvious that we can expect one, if not two, linebackers to be drafted next week. Likely one inside and one outside. Let\’s not forget that Mortty Ivy, Marshall McFadden, Brandon Hicks are all on the roster as well. While all three are considered dark horses, Harrison was one too at the beginning of his career.
When you look at the pre draft visitors the Steelers have had in leading up to the draft, you see four outside types and three inside types, not counting the local University of Pittsburgh players. The top round prospects on that list are of course Dont\’a Hightower, Nick Perry, Mychal Kendricks and Andre Branch. Realistically Hightower and Perry are the only first rounders according to several of the draftniks. The concerns with Hightower is that he is only an inside BUCK guy that lacks lateral agility and ability to drop and cover. There is no doubt he is always around the football though and makes splash plays. He could lack the versatility though to play outside, other than being an occasional edge rusher, and Butler has said in the past that young linebackers usually take two years to learn the system. Perry is a strong side defensive end that would have to be stood up as an outside linebacker in the 3-4. He too lacks prime agility, but does make up for it in explosion. He also has played on both sides.
General manager Kevin Colbert has been all over both of the Alabama pro days in March, so it is easy to point to Hightower as an easy target in the first round, but he has boom or bust written all over him due to his speed and lateral agility in my opinion. It would also likely take a full year at the very least to find that out, likely longer if the two-year Butler rule remains strict. Even though Hightower played in the 3-4 at Alabama, it would be hard to imagine him seeing the field his rookie season unless injuries occurred. Keep in mind that the Steelers have not drafted a “true” inside BUCK linebacker in the first round in the Super Bowl era. Coincidence or just damning evidence? Is Hightower that much of a can\’t miss prospect to end that string if he is still on the board when the Steelers pick? Based on the poll I ran recently, Steeler Nation seems to think so. I on the other hand am struggling with it being a slam dunk, but am not discounting it as a possibility either. Perhaps I just watched too much tape on him.
The damning thing that might make a Worilds move inside pretty much impossible is the current depth at outside linebacker. Who would the Steelers plug in if either Woodley or Harrison went down? We learned last year that it can\’t be Timmons, and Carter has very limited snaps to make one feel comfortable with him. Like Sylvester, it is hard to give a solid analysis of a player that has not seen the field much.
Depending on what round, and what type of linebacker is drafted early on, could tell us what the organization thinks of Worilds. Should Perry be the pick, it could signal that Worilds is slated to move inside in 2012 or out of town after 2012. Should Hightower be the pick, it could mean that Sylvester is not thought of as the heir apparent to Farrior and that Worilds will remain on the outside to eventually succeed Harrison.
One thing is for certain though, expect a few of the draft picks to be linebackers next weekend and I can\’t wait to hear Butler talk about what the future holds for Worilds during his press conference following the pick. Is he the next Farrior, the next Alonzo Jackson, the heir apparent to Harrison or somewhere in-between?