By Matthew Marczi
That fourth-year reserve linebacker Stevenson Sylvester is entering a critical season was no secret long before linebackers coach Keith Butler said so explicitly. Indeed, it was obvious before the Pittsburgh Steelers chose not to give Sylvester a restricted free agent tender.
With Pittsburgh Tribune-Review author Mark Kaboly reporting on Wednesday that the Steelers have moved Sylvester from inside linebacker—where he has played nearly exclusively—to outside linebacker during this week’s minicamp suggests that his roster spot might very well hinge on his versatility.
As Dave Bryan wrote earlier, the position switch does seem in part to suggest that the coaches are pleased with what they have seen from former undrafted free agent Marshall McFadden, who led the Steelers in tackles during the 2012 preseason and earned himself a spot on the practice squad.
It would be irresponsible, of course, to suggest that the move has anything to do with second-year linebacker Sean Spence and his recovery from a knee injury, despite his confidence that he will play this season. But perhaps it does say something about another young linebacker on the roster: Chris Carter.
Carter, a former fifth round draft pick entering his third season in the league, was tabbed to start the first couple of games of the season a year ago at right outside linebacker as James Harrison and Jason Worilds recovered from their own injuries.
Carter, however, has an injury history of his own, having played in only half of the 32 games during which he has been a member of the team. Though Sylvester’s play was extremely limited during the 2012 season, he has still been more productive than Carter.
Many have suggested that Carter and Adrian Robinson or Sylvester and McFadden would be jockeying for their respective positions, but perhaps that is not the case after all. Perhaps it is Sylvester and Carter who are now battling for the ninth linebacker spot on the roster.
The Steelers already have Worilds, LaMarr Woodley, rookie Jarvis Jones, and, Robinson, who appears to be a coach favorite, at the outside linebacker position aside from Carter, after all. Why else would they move Sylvester there unless to see if he can bolster his chances of making the roster by flashing position flexibility?
What is worse for Carter is that, despite his speed and quickness, he has not demonstrated much of a talent for special teams, which would be his primary role while sitting behind at least three other players on the depth chart at his position, if not four.
Sylvester, on the other hand, has in the past displayed a penchant for the third aspect of the game of football, as attested by his 11 special teams tackles and forced fumble during his rookie season in 2010.
Also of note: in 2012, Sylvester played on 41% of the team’s special teams snaps despite missing six games. Carter played on 24% of the team’s special teams snaps despite missing eight games. Carter may have missed more time, but it does not account for that discrepancy.
Aside from special teams play, Carter’s in-game performance on defense was also quite lackluster, and certainly not worth saving a roster spot for over a player fifth of the depth chart whose special teams performance leaves much to be desired. In three starts, Carter managed just six tackles, with four of them being assisted tackles, and one was on special teams. He was credited with one pass defensed and two quarterback pressures as well.
Coupled with his injury history, his pedestrian performance during a three game stretch as a starter, and his uninspiring play on special teams, perhaps Carter’s future with the team is just as much in jeopardy as is Sylvester’s, especially if the latter shows any type of competence as an outside linebacker. Of course, nobody is giving a player like Robinson a free pass either, but to my mind, at the moment the ninth linebacker spot would appear to be down to Sylvester and Carter.