For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.
Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.
Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the pessimistic side of the coin.
Question: Can Larry Foote still be an important part of this defense, and is he worth retaining?
Inside linebacker Larry Foote has been in the NFL for 13 seasons, spending 12 of them in Pittsburgh. But is he at the end of the line?
Foote inherited the Buck linebacker spot—and the signal-calling responsibilities—from his good friend James Farrior in 2012, and as a result, he had statistically one of the best seasons of his career. He posted a career-high 113 tackles and tied his career best with four sacks, while also contributing two forced fumbles.
But Foote missed nearly the entirety of the 2013 season, and will be turning 34 in June. And the Steelers found that they were able to turn to rookie Vince Williams to handle the Buck position, with the expectation that he will only grow in his second year. And there’s always the possibility of Sean Spence returning.
While Foote may have put up some of the best stat lines in his career in 2012, however, it was also clear that he is not the player he once was. His run defense in particular was on the decline, and that’s something that was also on display for his 50 or so snaps that he took against the Tennessee Titans in 2013.
On top of simply missing two tackles, Foote was routinely blown out of holes by the Titans’ interior offensive line, whose head coach, Mike Munchak, will now be coaching the trenches for the Steelers against Foote’s defense in practice.
While it may be true that Foote’s knowledge of the defense allows him to play the role of player-coach, which would be beneficial to the team’s young Buck linebackers, the matter simply comes down to whether or not the Steelers need what Foote can offer on the field at this point.
Though his cap hit is not egregious, and the savings of releasing him is even less, it’s clear that the Steelers are looking to, and need to, move on from the past. Larry Foote is certainly the past.
Even under ideal circumstances, which wouldn’t include him coming off a ruptured biceps, Foote would have at best a year or two left in him, and I struggle to find a compelling argument to suggest that Williams couldn’t offer a comparable, if not superior, level of performance in the middle of the defense.
And if Foote isn’t starting, he doesn’t need to be paid over $1 million. A mentor is all well can good, but with players like Keith Butler, Jerry Olsavsky, and now Joey Porter on the coaching staff, there should be no shortage of guidance for the young Williams. And it’s not like Lawrence Timmons doesn’t know the defense.
Given his age, decline in performance, and the emergence of young candidates at the position, the best Foote should hope for is to be released and re-signed to a one-year, veteran minimum contract with a chance to compete for the swing inside linebacker reserve role. Otherwise it’s not clear that his spot on the roster is entirely justified. Not that that will necessarily prevent the Steelers from going into this season with Foote as their starting Buck linebacker anyway.