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For Sean Spence, The Question Shifts From If To How He Can Perform

Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin held their pre-draft press conference yesterday, which stretched out over about half an hour, and there was plenty of information to parse in that time span.

The headline for most, I’m certain, would be Tomlin’s declaration that inside linebacker Sean Spence is “healthy and working”.

While reports leading up to the offseason workouts have alluded to this, it is a significant development to hear it phrased this way following the beginning of football activities.

Especially with the way Tomlin followed that statement, saying, “we can’t wait to watch him take the next step in this process, obviously, which is to play football”. In other words, the only obstacle between Spence and being able to play is simply finding out if he can play, by actually playing.

That’s not to diminish how profound a step that is, of course: to go from merely performing football activities to playing football. Still, the assumption seems to be that he will be able to play. The question, then, is how he will play.

Can he be an impact player? Tomlin: “I think that’s to be determined with how he performs and plays, but he’s been given a clean bill of health and we’ll go from there”.

How close can he be from where he left off in August 2012 from a physical standpoint? Tomlin: “I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think you can know the answer to that for anybody that sustains a knee injury until they move on and play football”.

These are the questions remaining that need answers. Spence is clearly behind from a physical standpoint, having been out of the game for essentially two years now. But that doesn’t mean that he’s fallen behind from a mental standpoint, which could help give him a critical edge in his return:

“I don’t think that we’re starting from scratch. These haven’t been empty days for him since he’s been here, with the rehabilitation process and what he’s been able to do in terms of learning our system of football. I’m not going to assume that he’s starting from ground zero”.

So now that we have more reason to anticipate the return of the Steelers’ 2012 third-round pick, what are the realistic projections for his 2014 season?

To be frank, it would be a victory if he even becomes a notable special teams contributor, given where he’s been and how much it’s taken him to get to where he is now.

But with an uncertain future at inside linebacker, if Spence is able to play, there is an instant role for him. The current incumbent at the buck, second-year player Vince Williams, has a reputation for being a two-down linebacker. The Steelers regularly took him off the field last season on obvious passing downs.

Late in the season, they began replacing him with Terence Garvin, at the time an undrafted rookie. Spence could hypothetically fill that role with ease, assuming he can do it physically, and as a bonus, he could certainly stand up to the run better than Garvin.

Taking over a starting spot, whether in training camp or somewhere during the season, should not be out of the question, either. While Williams handled himself well, there is a reason that they drafted Spence in the third round in 2012, which was the highest that they’d drafted an inside linebacker other than Lawrence Timmons since they drafted Kendrell Bell in 2001.

Spence possesses many of the strengths that Williams does, and less of the weaknesses. While it’s not wise to get ahead of ourselves, the mind can’t help but be tempted by the possibilities. And that’s what Spence represents right now for the team: potential.

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