When you look at the NFL scouting combine and pro day measurables of the Pittsburgh Steelers third round draft pick Sean Spence, you might not be overly impressed. His 5 foot, 11 inch height combined with his 231 pound weight certainly has you envisioning a pretty smallish linebacker. Even Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review commented on first seeing Spence up close that he looks small and much more like a cornerback or running back than he does a linebacker. Other measurables like his 4.66 40 time might leave you scratching your head as to why the Steelers selected the Miami product in the third round. Spence only benched 225 pounds 12 times as he was recovering from a bruised shoulder suffered during the Senior Bowl, but that was just 7 shy from the 19 that he can reportedly do.
When you turn on the game tape of Spence you see a completely different player than his measurables make him out to be. As head coach Mike Tomlin said during the post draft press conference, "He has a very quick see-to-do." Tomlin went on to say about Spence, "If you go down to Mobile like Kevin and I did, when you watch a 9-on-7 drill the ball snaps and he is the first guy to move on the defensive side of the ball. You watch his tape, the guys read and react is exceptional. That helps him compensate for some of the deficiencies he has in size and length. He is aggressive and he’s tough. He is smart and a four-year starter down at the University of Miami. And he encompasses a lot of football character things that we value."
Spence might be a bit on the smallish size and he certainly doesn\'t run the fastest 40 yard dash, but one thing he does do well is make plays. At Miami he started 40-of-47 games with all but one of those starts coming at weak-side outside linebacker. His 318 tackles, 170 of which were solo, ranks him 11th in school history. Included in those tackle were 10.5 sacks for minus 87 yards and 47 stops for losses totaling 164 yards. He forced 4 fumbles and deflected 9 passes as well. He was the first Hurricane player to record 100 tackles in consecutive seasons (111 in 2010 and 106 in 2011) since Jonathan Vilma made 133 stops in 2002 and 127 in 2003. He is just one of six Hurricanes to ever record 100 tackles at least twice in a career. Plain and simply, Spence is always around the football.
Despite his reported 12 Wonderlic score, Spence has tremendous football smarts. Miami linebackers coach Michael Barrow was quoted as saying that Spence is special. Barrows also added about Spence, "Not only is he Peyton Manning-smart, but he also has the instincts to match, which is very rare for a guy to be both super-smart and instinctive. Most guys are either-or. Not him. He has the ability, he’s a fast learner." That is pretty high praise from a man that played 12 seasons in the NFL at linebacker himself.
Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said during his press conference following the selection of Spence, "This guy is smaller than Levon Kirkland. Sean is a very instinctive, fast, quick kid that is very smart. He is probably best served if we can cover him up. What I mean by that is; if you look at James Farrior, he played the last four or five years at 230 pounds and when you get older like that, it’s best to be playing at 230 pounds as opposed to 235 pounds because he knows the game well enough that he is going to act fast enough and he can use the techniques and knowledge of the game, he doesn’t have to be as heavy. It’s better for him so he can keep his mobility, because that’s more important than anything else. This guy has that mobility." Butler also said that Spence will start out with the Steelers as a MACK linebacker and backup starter Lawrence Timmons initially. In the mean time he will be expected to contribute on special teams, something every young Steelers linebacker has to do before they even think about seeing the field on defense.
While Butler said that Spence is currently not considered a BUCK linebacker, he stated the BUCK position is one that requires a player to be a little bit bigger and take on the guards more. When you watch the tape of Spence, you certainly can see that he at times can get run out of plays by bigger bodies.
Butler admits that Spence needs to cover up more, meaning that they would likely want him to add some more weight and muscle over the course of this next year. ETA: ((((After watching the presser again, Butler uses cover up in two different portions of the presser. The first time he talks about weight he gets into Farrior playing weight and the second into scheme. This threw me. I think that Butler meant both times scheme related, but I still think Spence needs to gain a little weight and muscle nonetheless. We shall see.)))) With Timmons presumably etched in stone as the Steelers MACK linebacker for the next several years, you have to think that Butler could potentially have eyes on making a BUCK out of Spence down the line after he learns the complexities of the defense.
As far as 2012 goes, Butler has all the confidence in the world in Larry Foote as the BUCK as he knows the defense inside and out. Stevenson Sylvester will back him up according to Butler, who admits that the third year player out of Utah needs to show him more this season. Butler added that Sylvester has to convince him first that he has long-term starting potential.
The rookie season for Spence will be spent using his quick see-to-do abilities on special teams as he starts to learn the nuances of the Dick LeBeau defense. Assuming he is as smart as Tomlin, Butler and Barrow say he is, the best case scenario would be that he might be able to contribute in nickel packages as a nickelbacker later on the season and that would be mighty impressive if that indeed happened that fast. Rookies just do not get much playing time on defense unless a slew of injuries occur.
It just goes to show that measurables are not everything to the Steelers when it comes to Spence and prototypical sizes for Steeler inside linebackers. The biggest measurement that he had going for him was his game tape and his awesome see-to-do ability. That ability does not have a number attached to it, but it means much more than height, bench reps and 40 times to the Steelers.