The 2013 NFL Draft, The Pittsburgh Steelers, and Mid-Round Inside Linebackers

Since 2009, Lawrence Timmons has been Pittsburgh’s starting “Mack/Weakside” Inside Linebacker.  At only 26, Timmons’ best years are likely ahead of him, and he figures to be one of the Steelers’ best Defensive players over the next half-decade.  Unfortunately for Dick LeBeau’s Defense, the franchise’s future at the “Buck/Strongside” Inside Linebacker spot is not as decided at the moment.

Although then-32 year-old Larry Foote enjoyed a productive year in 2012, he definitely showed his age more than a few times as he was victimized too often in pass-coverage over the course of the season.  While the Steelers could definitely re-sign the soon-to-be 12 year veteran UFA to a new deal, they will be unlikely to dedicate a large amount of money (or contract length) to him due to the franchise’s current salary cap issues.  G.M. Kevin Colbert and the rest of the Steelers’ brass might not have much of a choice in the matter however.  In fact, because the depth behind Foote and Timmons is basically non-existent, inexperienced, or some combination of both, Pittsburgh’s Front Office could essentially be forced to sign Larry to another contract regardless of how they feel about him.

Behind Foote is Stevenson Sylvester, a soon to be 4th year player who has played sparingly on Defense, and has been mistake-prone on Special Teams.  With only 1 career start and little in the way of a future as a starter, there is talk that Pittsburgh’s Front Office might not even offer their 2010 5th Round pick a Restricted Free Agent (RFA) tender this offseason and instead will try to sign him on the cheap as a UFA.  Behind Timmons though, the cupboard is basically bare as 2012 3rd Round pick Sean Spence is still rehabbing his gruesome knee injury.  When Spence was drafted last year, I and many others were excited at the prospect of Spence developing until Foote retired and Timmons being moved over to the “Buck” and Spence taking over the “Mack” when the then-Rookie was ready.  Sadly, I question whether or not Spence can even be an effective player at the professional level again, let alone suit up for a regular season game due to his bum knee.  So regardless of whether or not the plan is to shift Timmons over to the “Buck” when Foote eventually leaves, the Steelers could stand to use some talented prospects to develop at the positions for help down the road.

Unfortunately, as I have pointed out in two other posts, Inside Linebacker is not the only “gaping positional hole” on the Pittsburgh’s roster at the moment.  The Steelers’ brass have other needs to fill, and could choose to fill them (FS, SS, OLB, WR, RB, etc.) on Day 1 and Day 2 of the Draft.  If this happens, Colbert & Co. might have to wait until the middle/late portion of the Draft to select an Inside Linebacker.  Thankfully for them, there should be some talented Inside Linebackers to choose from late on Day 2 or early on Day 3 of the Draft.

 

These three players in particular intrigue me the most, and could be nice fits with the Steelers:

Gooden was an athletic play-maker with the Tigers. Mandatory Credit: Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

 

Zaviar Gooden, Missouri

If the long-term goal of the Steelers is to eventually shift Lawrence Timmons over to the “Buck,” Zaviar Gooden could be a perfect player to fill in at #94’s old “Mack” spot.  A Safety at the beginning of his collegiate career, Gooden moved to Linebacker during his Sophomore campaign.  The positional move worked wonders for Zaviar as he enjoyed two years in a row of productive play while he developed into an in-the-box player with great speed, agility, and quickness at the Weakside Linebacker spot.  During the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Gooden combined to register 165 Tackles, 13.5 TFL’s, 4.0 Sacks, 1 Forced Fumble, 2 Fumble Recoveries, and 4 INT’s.

Hopes were high for Gooden as he entered his Senior season in 2012.  Sadly for him, a hamstring injury struck, and his production and play took a bit of a dive.  In 10 games, he was limited to only 61 Tackles, 4.0 TFL’s, and 1 INT for a TD.  The bum hamstring hobbled Gooden all year long, and he even missed Missouri’s final two games because of the injury.

As talented as Gooden is and can be, his stock might slip on Draft Weekend due to a few reasons.  First, Gooden will have to transfer his game from the outside to the inside, so some development time will be needed as he changes positions.  Furthermore, the former Tiger will have to get the most out of his “smaller” 6’1″ 234 lb. frame to work on his overall strength and block-shedding skills if he wants to shift full-time between the Tackles for a 3-4 team.

From some of the tape I watched of him on YouTube, Gooden also had issues defending plays he had to spend time reacting to, especially against the run.  When moving downhill and pursuing a play, the Tiger Linebacker puts his athleticism and quickness to good use and can make splash plays.  But when Gooden hesitates, or is locked onto by a Lineman, Tight End, or Fullback, he can be driven out of plays completely and not recover in time.  In terms of Zaviar being a talented yet raw prospect, NFL.com Draft Guru Mike Mayock had this to say about him (via Dave Matter of The Columbia Daily Tribune):

 

His biggest attribute is that he runs well…Now, I don’t think he has great instincts.  The more tape I watch I go, ‘I’d love to see him see things more quickly.’  But once he identifies and lets it go, once he allows his athletic ability to go, he’s really good.  I just don’t like his instincts as much as some other people.

 

I know that I will be interested to watch Gooden perform at The Combine because he is apparently at full health.  This in turn should allow the Missouri defender to show off his athletic ability.  In Matter’s article in fact, Gooden discussed the possibility of running a sub 4.4 40 Yard Dash at this weekend’s event, and apparently had accomplished the straight-line feat more than once in college.  While the Steelers might not take the talented Alec Ogletree due to character issues to fill their ILB-needs early, Gooden could be a ultra-athletic option for the franchise to look towards later on with the intention of developing his raw skill-set under Linebackers Coach Keith Butler.

 

Holloman played Safety in college. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

DeVonte Holloman, South Carolina

I am a big fan of versatility, and versatility is exactly what DeVonte Holloman can bring to a team like the Steelers as a “Strongside/Buck” Inside Linebacker in a 3-4 Defense.  At South Carolina, Holloman was actually a Defensive Back early in his collegiate career (35 Career Starts, 51 Career Games).  In fact, Holloman was primarily utilized as a Strong Safety during his Freshman and Sophomore seasons (2009-2010: 99 Tackles, 3.0 TFL’s, 3 INT’s).

Since 2011 though, DeVonte has manned the “Spur” spot, a Linebacker/Safety hybrid position, in the Gamecock’s Defense.  The position change definitely helped Holloman as he enjoyed the best and most productive season of his career in 2012.  Overall, Holloman set career high’s in Tackles (56), TFL’s (8.0), Sacks (2.0), Forced Fumbles (2), Passes Defensed (7), and INT’s (3).

If he transitions to a 3-4 Inside Linebacker, the former Gamecock would already possess plus skills as a pass-defender, and could immediately be able to help any Defense in Nickel sub-packages.  In addition, Holloman also has a decent set of hands (7 career INT’s), and has quick enough feet to stay with most Tight Ends and Backs at the professional level if he continues to develop.  In fact, DeVonte’s “Spur” duties led him to be used quite a bit in man and zone coverage in the slot during his college career.

As intriguing as Holloman’s upside is, he will probably need time to transition into a full-time Inside Linebacker at the professional level.  First and foremost, the former Gamecock must develop as a block-shedder and 1st and 2nd Down “in-the-box” full-time player at the position.  What Devonte has working in his favor is the fact that his 6’2” 242 lb. frame is more than big enough to stand the rigors of taking on charging Fullbacks and Offensive Linemen.  Thus, he definitely could develop as a future starter at the “Buck” at some time in the future if he is capable of making the transition inside.  Yet Holloman’s athleticism will mean very little however if he is driven out of plays because he is unable to take on Linemen and force the issue against opposing ball-carries.

Holloman intrigues me as a prospect that I would hope he is on Pittsburgh’s radars as early as late in the 3rd Round.  If the South Carolina Linebacker slips into Day 3 and the Steelers have not selected a player at the position, I believe that he would be a solid value pick at that specific juncture for any team employing a 3-4 Defense with Inside Linebacker needs.

 

Jenkins had a fine career with the Gators. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jelani Jenkins, Florida

Like Gooden, Jelani Jenkins could be a terrific option for the Steelers to look to late on Day 2 of the Draft as a potential “Mack” replacement.  After he spent his first year in Gainesville on the bench, Jenkins put together two productive seasons in 2010 and 2011.  As a Redshirt Freshman, Jenkins recorded 76 Tackles, 4.5 TFL’s, 2.0 Sacks, 1 Fumble Recovery, and 1 INT.  And as a Redshirt Sophomore, the Weakside Linebacker put up almost identical stats when he logged 75 Tackles, 6.0 TFL’s, 2.0 Sacks, 1 Forced Fumble, 1 INT, and 1 TD.

Much like Gooden however, Jenkins’ final collegiate season was plagued by injuries.  During his Junior campaign, Jenkins missed a total of 4 games due to thumb, hamstring, and foot problems.  The foot injury most notably forced the Gator Linebacker to miss The Sugar Bowl, and Jenkins only recorded 29 Tackles, 5.0 TFL’s, 2.0 Sacks, and 1 INT over 9 regular season games.

Although the injuries could hurt Jenkins’ draft stock, the aspect of his game which could intrigue many teams is his pass coverage skills.  The Redshirt Junior Linebacker is very fluid with his hips, and possesses enough speed to potentially hang with some of the League’s more athletic Tight Ends in man coverage down the field.  Jenkins has the agility to stick and stay with potential pass receivers in the middle of the field, and has the tools to use his instincts when playing in zone coverage to close passing windows, even at only 6′ tall.

While the injury questions will linger, questions about Jenkins’ somewhat smaller frame (listed at 6′ 237 lbs. on Florida website) were answered this weekend at The Combine when the Weakside Linebacker weighed in at 243 lbs.  Before the draft, some like myself figured that Jenkins was thought to be more of a 4-3 Weakside Outside Linebacker, so the added weight gain is definitely a plus and a relief to some teams who were unsure about how filled out he would be.  Recent events aside, I will nevertheless be interested to see if Jenkins’ speed and agility do not take a dive from the his weight-gain.  Although he is better suited to play on the “Mack” anyway, Jenkins must prove that he is strong enough and technically sound enough to take on blocks from N.F.L. sized Interior Linemen on a consistent basis.  Furthermore, Jenkins must be tenacious enough to keep throwing whatever frame he possesses into the scrum on running plays between the Tackles over the course of an entire game.

At least to me though, Jenkins represents great value late on Day 2 or early on Day 3.  So if the Steelers have not selected an Inside Linebacker by then, I will be anxious to see if they dip into the University of Florida talent-pool once again this year and select the former Gator Linebacker.  Although most of Jenkins’ contributions could come in a starting role later on, he would be a great addition to LeBeau’s sub-package schemes in passing situations early in his career.

 

Final Thoughts

If you readers could not already tell, I really hope that Pittsburgh’s brass will draft an Inside Linebacker this April who can not only emerge as a future starter, but one who can be an adept pass defender.  Sean Spence was supposed to fill that role in the future, but now it appears his horrific knee injury included nerve damage.  Thus, I am sure that Pittsburgh’s brass will be interested in finding his replacement in that area if they do not believe Spence can return.  Although people will laud the Steelers’ Defense for their “Paper Champions” status from last season, they nevertheless had issues with their Linebackers covering the middle of the field and help is needed.

Regardless of when the Steelers select an Inside Linebacker, I earnestly hope that the position is considered a need which is located high up on Pittsburgh’s Draft Board.  If Colbert & Co. take somebody like Ogletree, Kevin Minter of Louisiana State, Khaseem Greene of Rutgers, or Arthur Brown of Kansas State early in Round 1 or Round 2, then I will downright ecstatic.  But if they wait until late on Day 2/early on Day 3 to fill the need with an athletic developmental prospect like the ones I listed above, I will be just as pleased with the decision.

 

 

Readers: Who of the three prospects I listed above do you like the best?  Are there other players you like instead in the middle Rounds (Gerald Hodges, Kiko Alonso, etc.)?  Share your thoughts below.

 

Stats Courtesy of: Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, and ESPN.com

 

Heights & Weights Courtesy of: NFL.com Scouting Combine Page

 

Topics: 2013 NFL Draft, Inside Linebacker, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers

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