By: Zach Metkler, The Burgh Blog Writer
After taking a look at the Steelers defensive line breakdown, I will now take a look at the inside linebackers, which should continue to be a strong point for the Steelers this season.
Players on Roster:
-#94 Lawrence Timmons (6’1″, 234 lbs.; 30 years old; 10 years experience; Florida State)
-#50 Ryan Shazier (6’1″, 230 lbs.; 23 years old; 3 years experience; Ohio State)
-#98 Vince Williams (6’1″, 233 lbs.; 26 years old; 4 year experience; Florida State)
-#51 Steven Johnson (6’1″, 237 lbs.; 28 years old; 5 years experience; Kansas)
-#46 Tyler Matakevich (6’1″, 235 lbs.; 23 years old; Rookie; Temple)
-#54 L.J. Fort (6’0″, 232 lbs.; 26 years old; 2 years experience; Northern Iowa)
-#49 Jordan Zumwalt (6’4”, 235 lbs.; 24 years old; 3 years experience; UCLA)
In recent years, the Steelers have invested a number of 1st round draft picks in linebackers in an effort help bolster the position. Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones, and Bud Dupree are all former 1st round selections (2 inside and 2 outside linebackers). The results have been mixed for the group as a whole, but on the inside, the arrow is definitely pointing up.
Lawrence Timmons has been a force and a leader on the Steelers defense for years since being selected 15th overall in the 2007 NFL Draft. Although his playing has gone largely unnoticed by much of the NFL, the underrated Timmons continues to turn in great performances each season. Unfortunately, Timmons has began to show some regression in his game, which should come as no surprise due to his heavy usage over his career. Entering the final year of his contract, Timmons will be an interesting player to keep track of. It has been a well-known fact that Timmons is one of Mike Tomlin’s favorite players (likely because Timmons was Tomlin’s first draft pick as the Steelers head coach) and that Timmons would like to stay with the organization. For this to happen, he must take a substantial pay cut since he will make almost $15 million during the 2016 season. He will likely do this, especially since he is no longer the top dog of the Steelers linebacker group. That honor belongs to Ryan Shazier.
Like Timmons, Shazier was the 15th pick of his draft (2014) and was widely considered one of the best linebackers in his class. Boasting a smaller than usual frame while being one of the most athletic linebackers in recent draft memory (Shazier ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the Combine), many believed that Shazier was a glorified safety playing linebacker. Throughout an injury-riddled first 2 seasons, Shazier has shown that he has the potential to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL… IF he can stay healthy. Shazier has become noticeably thicker through his first 2 seasons without sacrificing any of his blazing athleticism or knack for being a heat-seeking missile towards ballcarriers. If he can stay healthy, expect Shazier to make the leap into stardom in his 3rd season and become one of the best defenders in the NFL. He has already shown the ability to be a difference maker and a playmaker. Time will tell if he can do it on a consistent, healthy basis.
After Timmons and Shazier, things will be a little different this season. With the departure of Sean Spence and Terence Garvin, Vince Williams will take over the primary backup duties for both Timmons and Shazier. Williams has been forced into action numerous times in his career due to injuries, most notably during his rookie season when he started 10 of the last 11 games during the year after a bicep injury to Larry Foote. Williams lacks the athleticism of Shazier (and even Timmons for that matter) but makes up for it by being a solid run defender and having decent awareness. Entering his contract season, it would be no surprise to see Williams come back on a new contract, considering the lack of experienced depth and the potential loss of Timmons after the 2016 season.
This offseason, the Steelers attempted to soften the blow of losing special teams ace Terence Garvin by adding another experienced special teamer in the form of Steven Johnson. Johnson has been predominantly a special teams stud over his career after going undrafted in 2012 to the Denver Broncos. He has made some spot starts throughout his career, performing admirably when called upon. Johnson will likely just fill the hole vacated by Garvin until someone else is able to step up, which is why the Steelers likely signed him to a 1-year contract. His spot on the final 53-man roster isn’t a guarantee, although he is a favorite to make the final roster primarily due to his experience in the NFL.
Rounding out the inside linebacker depth chart are 3 young players all trying to make an impact this season. Leading off the bunch is 2016 7th round pick Tyler Matakevich, who shined during his 4-year career at Temple, winning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award and being selected as a consensus All-American during his senior season. While at Temple, Matakevich accumulated 493 total tackles, gaining over 100 tackles each season. Much like Williams, Matakevich lacks elite athleticism and size but makes up for it by being a true student of the game and giving 200% every play. It is players like Matakevich that quickly become fan favorites in Pittsburgh and make their mark by playing with a relentless motor every down. With that being said, Matakevich still has some aspects of his game that he needs to improve on and his best chance of making the roster will be by sneaking onto the roster as a special teams ace. His main competition will likely be Steven Johnson, especially depending on how many inside linebackers the team decides to keep.
After Matakevich, L.J. Fort boasts the next best potential of making the final 53-man roster. Over his career, Fort has spent time at both middle linebacker and fullback, including last season where he spent 15 weeks on the Steelers practice squad before being activated to the 53-man roster during the final week of the season for the injured Roosevelt Nix. Although he had no statistics, he filled his role on special teams well but after bouncing around the NFL over his short career, he will need some help to make the final 53-man roster. After spending time on the practice squad last season, Fort could benefit from another season of developing before potentially making the jump as a full-time special teams ace in 2017.
The final player to mention is none other than Jordan Zumwalt. Safety Mike Mitchell filled in fans on the Football Today podcast on a short story about Zumwalt:
“I’m in the facility the other day and there’s this kid, Jordan Zumwalt. Great kid, drafted out of UCLA. Unfortunately, he’s been injured the last two years. And Coach T comes in and he says, ‘What’s up money pit?’ He called him a money pit. ‘I’ve put my money in you the last two years and you ain’t made one tackle.’”
While Tomlin was joking, it is still a perfect way of describing the career of Zumwalt up to this point. He has been plagued by groin injuries that have stopped him from seeing the field. It is telling that the Steelers haven’t cut Zumwalt outright at this point, which indicates that they feel he can contribute to the team in some capacity but what that is has yet to be seen. If there is any season for Zumwalt to stay healthy and try to make an impact, this is the season. Whether or not that will actually happen is up in the air but if I had to guess right now, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Expected Depth Chart:
- Lawrence Timmons (Starter)
- Ryan Shazier (Starter)
- Vince Williams
- Steven Johnson
Total Players Making the Final 53-Man Roster: 4
Here it is: my first surprise of the season. In 2016, only 3 spots are locked up as guarantees: Timmons, Shazier, and Williams. Beyond that, it will be an all out battle for a roster spot. The Steelers typically never keep more than 5 inside linebackers on the roster but this year, I fully expect them to only keep 4 with additional help on the practice squad. Timmons and Shazier will come back as the unquestioned starters with Williams coming back as the primary backup. While many people believe that Matakevich will make a push for the final roster (which I also believe), it is more realistic for the veteran to make the final roster (Johnson). The only way Matakevich, Fort, or Zumwalt will make the final 53-man roster over Johnson is if they show that they can make a huge impact on special teams this season as inexperienced players. In the event that the Steelers choose to keep 5 inside linebackers instead of 4, look for Matakevich to get the nod, which very well could happen. At this point, though, look for the Steelers to keep 4 ILB’s with Matakevich and Fort making the practice squad. If that happens, it would not surprise me at all for Matakevich to be called up to the 53-man roster at some point in the season as injuries occur and he grasps a better understanding of the playbook. Zumwalt will likely be the odd man out and will no longer be wearing black and gold, especially if he cannot remain healthy. Either way, this is a big season for the Steelers inside linebackers with the potential for very big things.
Coming up next: Outside Linebacker. Stay tuned!