Health Of Sean Spence Holds Keys To Steelers Future At Inside Linebacker Position

I am asked at least once a week via email or Twitter if I have heard anything about how the recovery of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Sean Spence is coming along since he suffered his serious left knee injury last preseason that included a torn ACL, a torn LCL and a dislocated knee cap. All I can tell you at this point is that the reports range from him possibly being ready by the time training camp opens to the Steelers not planning on counting on him much in 2013.

Being as the reports vary so much, I don\’t think that anyone outside of the Steelers organization really knows the answer to that question, but hopefully we will get some sort of an update when Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert talks to the media this coming week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. Colbert might not spill the whole truth, however, in an effort to play his draft cards close to his vest.

The Steelers seemingly have some serious question marks at the inside linebacker position at this point in the offseason outside of Spence as veteran Larry Foote is an unrestricted free agent and Stevenson Sylvester is a restricted free agent. Sylvester is expected to be restricted tendered at an original round level, but until he is, the only inside linebackers currently under contract for 2013 are Spence, Lawrence Timmons, Marshall McFadden, Kion Wilson and Brian Rolle. McFadden spent most of the season on the Steelers practice squad last year while both Wilson and Rolle were futures signings earlier this offseason.

Foote wants to return in 2013, but the only way that happens is if he his willing to settle for a one-year deal close to the minimum. The jury has long been out on Sylvester, who played all of one snap in 2012 on defense and a total of 75 since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2010 draft.

The health of Spence, who Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler called a MACK prospect that needed to be covered up after he was drafted last April, could be a huge deciding factor in how early the Steelers decide to draft an inside prospect in a few months.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock listed Alec Ogletree, Manti Te\’o, Kevin Minter, Kevin Reddick and Kiko Alonso as his top five pre combine inside linebackers this past week. Ogletree is almost certainly off the Steelers draft board right now due to all of his character red flags that include him being arrested just last weekend for DUI and Te\’o still has questions to answer about his imaginary girlfriend fiasco along with his play against Alabama in the championship game. That leaves Minter as the only remaining first round worthy player of the five Mayock listed.

Unless Te\’o or Minter wind up being selected in round one, the Steelers will more than likely have to wait until round three or later to address the position to get value. It should also be noted that a rookie defensive player is unlikely to see the field during his first season baring an injury. The last Steelers defensive draft pick to open the season as a starter was linebacker Kendrell Bell back in 2001.

Should Spence wind up being deemed not ready to contribute in 2013 then the Steelers will be forced to re-sign Foote, and quite possibly even Brandon Johnson, who played all of two snaps last year. Foote will be 33 come the start of the season while Johnson, if ultimately re-signed, will turn 30 in May.

McFadden showed promise last preseason after leading the team in tackles, but that is the last time we saw him on the field. Wilson and Rolle are just training camp bodies at this point until they prove otherwise.