Heading into the 2012 NFL draft it looked as if the Pittsburgh Steelers might have interest in drafting not only an inside linebacker, but an outside linebacker as well. Of their 30 allowed pre draft visitors, 4 were considered 3-4 outside linebacker prospects in the form of Nick Perry, Andre Branch, Cam Johnson and Olivier Vernon. There were also reports that the Steelers had some interests in Whitney Mercilus in addition to those four players.
When the smoke had cleared late Saturday night the Steelers had only drafted inside linebacker Sean Spence and added outside linebackers Brandon Lindsey and Adrian Robinson as undrafted free agents following the draft. These actions would lead you to believe that the team is very comfortable with Jason Worilds and Chris Carter as their backups to James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley as they head now towards training camp.
While there has been some speculation that Worilds could possibly be heading for a move inside, it is looking less likely to happen any time soon, as he is still more than likely the first man off the bench should Harrison or Woodley miss time again like they did last year. Linebackers coach Keith Butler was asked if the third year linebacker out of Virginia Tech could play inside during his Friday press conference and said, “Worilds played outside for us last year and did a great job. Can he play inside? Maybe he can. We’ll see. We might give him a look at that. Right now we need him at outside.” So even though Butler did not rule out totally that Worilds could move inside at some point, he clearly states that he needs Worilds outside for now and that makes perfectly good sense.
The outside linebacker that perhaps has the biggest question mark attached to him heading into training camp is Chris Carter, the Steelers 5th round draft pick from last year. Carter did not get the benefit of mini camps and OTA sessions last year thanks to the lockout and he battled a nagging hamstring injury in addition during his rookie year that ultimately landed him on the injured reserve late in the season. Carter did manage to play a hair under 50 snaps last year on defense over the course of three games, with his most meaningful playing time coming against the New England Patriots after Woodley left the game injured. Carter showed how green he was in that game though, but you have to remember that linebackers hardly ever see the field their rookie season as they are usually thinking more than they are reacting.
Butler commented on Carter Friday as part of the Worilds answer I mentioned above and he said, “Chris Carter has a lot to learn. He was one of those rookies last year that gets the benefit of that second year this year. I have my work cut out for me as a coach.” That is not a glowing review for the former Fresno State product, but Butler is as blunt and honest as he can be on him. He has a lot to learn and that is to be expected. You can\’t judge a rookie linebacker for the Steelers in just 50 game snaps and Carter should benefit greatly from the OTA sessions this offseason. Hopefully his hamstring problems are way behind him now so that he can get as many snaps as possible during training camp and preseason.
Both Lindsey and Robinson are intriguing outside linebacker prospects added after the draft who will more than likely battle in training camp for a spot on the Steelers practice squad. The Steelers will likely only carry 8 linebackers in total on the 53 man roster this year with Spence taking the spot that was opened with the release of veteran James Farrior earlier this offseason.
Woodley is etched in stone on the left side for many more years to come baring something unforeseen and Harrison looks to rebound after a season that saw him miss 5 games with a busted orbital bone. Harrison is signed through the 2014 season, but there are worries that back issues could eventually catch up with him before he sees the end of his contract. As long as he is playing at the same level that we have been accustomed to prior to the 2011 season there is no reason to worry, but should his play fall off drastically because of his back or other injuries, the Steelers need someone to be able to step in and carry on his torch. That someone would likely be either Worilds or Carter, and judging by the draft and aftermath, the Steelers still have all the confidence in the world in both of them.