2017 Offseason Questions: Could Camp See Open Competition For Buck LB Spot?

The 2016 season is unfortunately over, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are now embarking upon their latest offseason journey, heading back to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, formerly known and still referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility of Heinz Field. While the postseason is now behind us, there is plenty left to discuss.

And there are plenty of questions left unanswered as well. The offseason is just really the beginning phase of the answer-seeking process, which is lasts all the way through the Super Bowl for teams fortunate enough to reach that far.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the offseason as they develop, and beyond, looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they try to navigate their way back to the Super Bowl, after reaching the AFC Championship game last season for the first time in more than half a decade.

Question: Are the Steelers heading toward an open competition in training camp to fill Lawrence Timmons’ vacated starting spot?

It’s not very often that the Steelers actually lose a starter that they like, and it’s even less frequent that they do so without a substitute, or at least a stopgap, in place. They recently lost Lawrence Timmons, and while Vince Williams could be that stopgap, the team has already aggressively sought alternatives.

Without recapping all of what has gone down in the past few days, it does not seem at all obvious that the Steelers intend to hand Williams the starting job, and that fact may remain intact even if they fail to address the inside linebacker position in free agency and the draft.

That is an idea that Bob Labriola seemed to be open to during a recent Asked and Answered segment. For those of you who do not follow Labriola, he has a way of making it clear when he is not taking a suggestion seriously.

But he did take it seriously when he was asked about Tyler Matakevich and the Steelers’ potential plans for him in the future as a possible starter. Labriola said that he believes the team in his experience doesn’t like the pigeon-hole somebody into a role and instead lets the player dictate what he can be.

While he said that Williams would get the first crack at the job and he expects him to win it, Labriola added that “if Williams falters…that could open the door for Matakevich”. And we have seen a number of marginal would-be starters falter in recent years.

There was Shamarko Thomas at safety. Then there was Robert Golden at safety. There was Jarvis Jones—multiple times. Cortez Allen and Antwon Blake were replaced or substituted.

Matakevich wasn’t so different from Williams when each entered the league, and the former may have an even greater knack for being around the football. At the very least, it is possible that they could juggle the position, which is actually something that Williams has experienced several times in past seasons, including his rookie year.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Jason

    Mathew, do you see any reason for a lack of interest in Zac Brown or Gerald Hodges? Both are above average players who seem to fit the price tag. Are they more suited for the mack position?

  • MattHat121

    Been wondering the same thing.

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  • Tedium cha

    We didn’t have the resources we have now as far as media. Was there this much hysteria when Joey porter made the trip to Miami and we had the “Undersized undrafted free agent special teams ace” take his spot? I don’t see why people are so worried about VW. The guy can run, play, and hits like a truck. I’m gonna miss law dog but I also like vinnie.

  • Doug

    Williams is far from a speed demon. He’s not quick.

  • RickM

    The most logical read to me is that they started free agency comfortable if Williams was their starter. Hightower wasn’t immediately signed in FA, and they saw a chance to upgrade and made a big bucks pitch that was rejected. No one else in free agency is viewed as significantly better than VW, so they’re prepared to roll with him with Matakevich as the back-up. As for the draft, It’s not easy at 30 getting a starter so relying on that doesn’t make sense. And of course they have needs at OLB, CB and to a lesser degree TE.

    VW has started 17 games, including 4 last year, so there’s some comfort level obviously. I’m not really sure how close they feel Matakevich’s level of play can be and I agree that may be an important part of the equation. I should know this sorry, but VW was nursing a shoulder injury in the playoffs and there was rumor his arm would be in a sling for 10 weeks after the N.E. loss. Is everything O.K. on that front? He’s a fierce hitter and a bad shoulder is not what he needs.

  • falconsaftey43

    Pretty much agree with you there. (I haven’t heard anything about Williams’ shoulder status). Williams is a fine starter. Matakevich is an ok backup for the Buck, but I do think they need someone to backup Shazier. Right not I guess you’d slide Williams over to Mack and have Matakevich play Buck.

  • RickM

    Matthew said that he didn’t think Williams played much Mack when Shazier was out and he wasn’t very comfortable having Williams and Matakevich side by side. He preferred the more athletic Spence be signed to back-up Ryan. That does make sense.

  • steelburg

    I think they will most certainly add another player in the draft. A player that’s sliding down board because he hasn’t been able to workout yet is Jared Davis the ILB from Florida. Early in the process he seemed to be out of our reach and now I could see him being there when we pick.

  • RickM

    I agree that the odds are better than average that they’ll add a guy. Relying on him to beat out Williams and be a Year 1 starter just seems a longshot though. What round will Davis go in?

  • falconsaftey43

    I wouldn’t be a fan of Williams and Matakevich on the field together either, as that’s a pretty slow grouping. Hopefully they add someone (or another safety) so they can avoid that. (I guess you could see Golden/Dangerfield now instead, but not sure how much better that is).

  • steelburg

    Davis is currently being projected as a late 1st rounder or ealy 2nd rounder. If we got him at 30 I’m pretty sure they would start him over Williams, if not it will be a really close position battle in camp.

  • Rocksolid20

    Do any Steeler fans really think we have improved our defense over last years ? Lost our leading tackler and didn’t up grade our BD situation , I can’t see it ?

  • RickM

    Well, that would clearly show that they don’t view VW as a full-time starter. It’s the most intriguing position of the off-season for me by far. The known, Shazier and Timmons starting with Timmons sliding to Mack if needed, has been replaced with some unknowns. It’ll be interesting personnel-wise to see how it all shakes out.

  • falconsaftey43

    Well, kinda have to wait till after the draft. I don’t see a large drop from Timmons to WIlliams, and I expeact the 3 young DBs to be better (Burns, Davis, Cockrell). I also expect Hargrave to be better, and Heyward to not miss most of the season. Dupree looked really good at the end of the year. Overall, I think it will be improved just because the growth of the young guys. We all saw how much better it got over the course of the season, hopefully we continue to see that. You can count on them adding at least 2 new defenders in the first 3 rounds as well.

  • steelburg

    The FO seems to be betting on there players. What I mean by that is it is generally known that most players make there greatest leap in the NFL in year 2. So if you consider that we have Davis, Burns, and Hargrave going into year 2, not to mention that you could basically say that Dupree is in year 2. The team is banking on those guys to take a leap. Throw in the return of Heyward, and they are crossing there fingers with Golson. If you look at all those factors its not hard to see what there plan is, so it all makes sense IMO. But they are definitely putting a lot of faith in the development of there own guys and that’s a little scary to me but I’m hoping for the best.

  • steelburg

    They already made it clear to me that they don’t view VW as a full time starter based off the contract they signed him to. If he was ever going to change there minds this is the time to do it during this off season and camp. But Davis would be to big of a value to pass up at 30 so we will see.

  • RickM

    The answer will be divided. I’ve always gone by Points Allowed and finishing 10th best in the league with 3 rookies in the line-up and Heyward out impressed me. I think the play of Shazier and Timmons finally side-by-side for a lengthy, uninterrupted period was an important part of that. Others feel Williams can play at the same level as Timmons. At the end of the day, we have to trust in the FO on this one. If they viewed Timmons as critical, they would have got him signed.

  • Tedium cha

    VW runs a comparable 40 to Hightower and most people were excited for him to join the Steelers. I’m just saying. I think we’ll be ok at mlb.

  • falconsaftey43

    I have to disagree about Davis too good to pass at 30. He’s a good player, don’t get me wrong, but has extensive injury history, isn’t any special athletically, and plays a position where quality starters are often found in mid to late rounds. For me, if you take an ILB in the 1st round, he has to have game changing ability (like Shazier).

  • Guest12

    He has done very good at his fill in role, but being a full time starter is much different so I think they just want to be on the safe side as apposed to just assuming he will do fine for a full season. Nothing wrong with that. Plus, his lack of coverage skills are a big concern

  • RickM

    Williams will struggle in coverage and despite his tackle total he doesn’t diagnose plays as well as Timmons, as evidenced by his missed tackles in that 4-game stretch. You can’t tell VW fans that, but it’s a reality. Personally, I think he will be the starter by attrition. I hope he can play at a level close to Timmons, and I’m probably in a minority worrying about it, but I hope he can stay healthy.

  • Guest12

    Dangerfield is a sleeper for us, dude just keeps getting better right under the radar

  • falconsaftey43

    Honestly Hightower isn’t good in coverage either. I don’t think their pursuit of Hightower (which I wasn’t a fan of) had much to do with Williams. I think it was all about Hightower, and the fact they really liked him and viewed him as one of the few FAs worth the money they commanded (I disagree, but that’s me, not them). If they were really worried about Williams, I think you’d have heard a lot more interest in ILBs, as there were/are a ton on the market. They were only interested in the guy they viewed as an impact player.

  • Guest12

    I agree Hightower is not very good in coverage but like you said he has been somewhat of a game changer and has years of film to show it, I think that’s the difference between VW and Hightower. VW has played well in his fill in roles but they must have seen something that makes them a little uneasy in just making him the starter. I think the best move for us at ILB would to bring Sean Spence back.

  • Guest12

    I would not be surprised if we started seeing more Dangerfield thrown into the mix as well.

  • steelburg

    I really can’t argue with you much on this because Davis currently has an incomplete grade as far as his workout numbers go. But after his pro day we will all have a better understanding of what kind of athlete he is.

  • Applebite

    Overall, or from a player’s perspective? I think a player’s growth trickles down to overall performance of a defense, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the defense has improved overall, if you get what I’m saying here. We seen a bit of that once Dupree returned last year. Before his return, it was obvious something had to improve, or the season was over with. They took a chance with Burns, Davis and Hargrave early on, and it paid off. So from that POV, yes, the defense has improved. But their overall performance makes you wonder…

    Stat wise…haven’t looked at the numbers, so I really can’t say there. I think the most important thing to watch for, however, is ‘consistent improvement’.

  • steelburg

    I agree with all your points. I think we will lose out on some really good athletic plays like the INT Timmons had against both the Giants and Bengals. I also agree that health could be a factor he is playing the most punishing position on the field and will consistently either be punishing people or getting punished. But just like you I’m hoping that he can play to a level that’s close to Timmons. But the big thing I will be looking for out of VW is consistency, Timmons was arguably Tomlins most consistent player since he took over as head coach.

  • LucasY59

    I agree with Labriola, Matakevich has the potential to challenge Vince, but I think VW will most likely win the spot (and every position on the team shouls have at least some sort of competition for the startter spot, its just that the Buck might have the closest/most even pair of players competing for it (Ben/Landry is the one that has the biggest gap)

    Whichever of those two wins out will still most likely need to come off the field on most passing downs, so they could see the lowest # of snaps of all the starters on D

  • 20Stoney

    I love Matakevich’s heart and smarts, but he looks so slow at linebacker. I hope he can make me eat my words, but if he’s taking snaps at linebacker I think we’re in trouble.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Either of them should probably be able to play buck. The question might simply be whether or not they think Vince Williams isn’t the better (or at least more cost-effective) option. There’s still time for them to show interest though.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Williams had shoulder surgery at the end of January I think, but I haven’t heard any updates since then. Maybe he’s posted something on social media, but I don’t really follow many players.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Getting Heyward back will improve the defense. Further development from *three* rookie starters last year will significantly improve the defense. Another year of growth from Cockrell will improve the defense. Bud Dupree with a full healthy offseason will improve the defense. James Harrison as a full-time player will improve the defense. Anything Senquez Golson can contribute will improve the defense.

  • Ryan Alderman

    I do, too.

  • mokhkw

    Impossible to answer in March.