Thursday, February 15, 2007

Getting Draft Ready --
Assessing the Linebackers

It has been mentioned elsewhere but it bears repeating -- if you want to get an idea of where the Steelers are headed (vis-a-vis the defensive scheme) one need only examine what players the team drafts at the linebacker position; and there should be no doubt that linebacker is a spot that is high on the Steelers' draft list.

Going into to the 2007 season there are eight linebackers currently listed on the team's depth chart (Clark Haggans, James Farrior, Rian Wallace, Richard Seigler -- practice squad, Larry Foote, Clint Kriewaldt, Joey Porter, and James Harrison) and of those, three (Mr. Porter, Mr. Haggans, and Mr. Harrison) are scheduled to become free agents at the end of the upcoming season, and two others (Mr. Farrior and Mr. Kriewaldt) are scheduled to be free agents at the conclusion of the 2008 season. Compounding that is the fact that four of these players (Mr. Farrior, Mr. Haggans, Mr. Kriewaldt, and Mr. Porter) will be thirty years of age, or older, when the 2007 season begins. Despite a rapid descent into old age, this group appears more than capable of handling the rigors of at least one more year.

For example, collectively, the fours starters (Mr. Haggans, Mr. Farrior, Mr. Foote, and Mr. Porter) missed a total of three games during the 2006 season, and that after missing a total of five games in 2005. Clearly durability does not appear to be an issue. On the field, the linebacking corps continues to perform at a high level -- as a group they combined for 7 interceptions (the highest total in the last seven years), 21 sacks (only 1/2 of a sack less than 2005), and 347 tackles & assists -- including James Farrior's team-leading 126, the third highest single-season total of his career (by way of comparison, Baltimore's much heralded starting linebackers combined for 353 tackles, and were led by Ray Lewis' 103) .

However, the 3-4 defense is designed to combat the running attack of the opposing offense, and the linebackers are the key to that. So, if there was a disappointment in 2006 it was that the Steelers' defense gave up the third highest number of net rushing yards (1,412) in the past seven seasons.

While the Steelers' linebackers continue to be amongst the best in the NFL there are questions of depth (will Arnold Harrison, who tore up knee ligaments return to the Steelers?) for 2007 season which must be immediately addressed, as well as long-term planning for 2008 and 2009. It is the hallmark of the free agency era in the NFL that a unit that is performing, and has performed, so well should simultaneously be such a significant question mark.

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