Pittsburgh’s defense suffered a major blow when Larry Foote exited their opening day game with a biceps injury. Already thin in terms of experienced depth at inside linebacker, the loss of Foote forced the Steelers to turn to Kion Wilson and rookie sixth round pick Vince Williams.
Although Wilson was named the interim starter, the rookie from Florida State overtook him on the depth chart and has emerged as the starter at the strongside inside linebacker spot in Foote’s place.
After some shaky showings against Chicago, Minnesota, and Oakland, during which he took poor angles, missed tackles, looked lost at times on the field (especially in pass coverage), Williams has improved in those particular areas and has looked more comfortable on a weekly basis manning the “buck” spot next to Lawrence Timmons.
Overall, the former Seminole is tied for sixth on the team in tackles with 34 and has racked up 3.0 tackles for loss. While he hasn’t looked like a “Pro Bowler,” the fact that the Steelers have received solid contributions from a rookie inside linebacker for the first time since 2001 (Kendrell Bell) has been a pleasant surprise.
So now that Williams has some experience under his belt and illustrated some flashes of solid play, one has to wonder whether or not the Steelers’ cap-strapped front office will deem Foote potentially expendable during the offseason?
On one hand it would be silly for the cap-strapped Steelers to stunt the growth of Williams to keep a not-so-cheap veteran like Foote on the roster. Foote is scheduled to earn $1.5 million (in base salary) during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, and it might behoove the franchise to allocate that money towards re-signing other potential free agents like Jerricho Cotchery.
In Foote’s defense however, Pittsburgh could have almost nothing in terms of experienced depth at either inside linebacker position after this season ends.
Stevenson Sylvester and Kion Wilson will be UFAs, while Terence Garvin has seen only special teams duty during his rookie campaign. The Steelers have also been hesitant to use Williams in their non-base packages, and the rookie only played a total of seven snaps against the Lions last weekend. Thus, unless Pittsburgh’s brass plan to select an inside linebacker early in the 2014 NFL Draft, keeping Foote around for one more season could ultimately be a sensible insurance policy.
Although Foote’s current contract will not expire until the end of the 2015 season, the cap-strapped Steelers might elect to cut the veteran inside linebacker if Williams can continue to improve. Luckily for Foote, unlike other veterans on the roster like Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, his price tag for the next two seasons ($1.5 million in base salary) would make him a far less attractive option to cut for the cap-strapped Steelers to clear cap-space.
At least to me, the franchise has little to lose by bringing the veteran back for one more season if he returns from his biceps injury. A team can never have too much depth at such an important position like the “buck,” and the team could always turn to Foote to fill in for Williams if the youngster earns the starting gig.
For now though, all we can do is wait until the spring and wonder whether or not Foote is indeed in Pittsburgh’s long-term plans, or whether or not Williams or a potential high draft choice will inspire the Steelers’ brass to look in another direction.
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