Colbert encouraged by Spence's progress

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers are without a third-round draft pick this year as they traded the selection to the Browns in 2013 for a fourth-round pick they used on safety Shamarko Thomas.

General manager Kevin Colbert made the trade knowing the Steelers have a good chance of recouping the pick albeit at the end of the third round as compensation for losing free agents last year including wide receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Keenan Lewis and running back Rashard Mendenhall.

Here is another way the Steelers can, in a sense, recover the pick: a return to the playing field by inside linebacker Sean Spence, their third-round pick in 2012.

Spence continues to work his way back from a career-threatening knee injury he sustained in the final preseason game of his rookie season. And Colbert said earlier this week that there is a chance the former Miami Hurricanes star could play this season.

“He's certainly going to be in the mix as a possibility,” Colbert said, “but I think we'd be na├»ve to say that he's over the hump because nobody knows that at this point.”

That such uncertainty still clouds Spence's future is telling of how badly he hurt his right knee in August 2012.

Spence tore three ligaments in his knee, including his ACL, disclocated his knee cap and suffered nerve damage, putting his career in peril.

The injury was such a devastating one that last April Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said it would be a “miracle” if Spence ever played again.

Spence has worked relentlessly to return to the field, and he and the Steelers saw some much needed light last October when Spence received medical clearance to practice on a limited basis.

The 5-foot-11, 231-pounder made it through just one practice but the Steelers were encouraged by what they saw -- and by the fact that a broken hand and not a setback with his knee shut down Spence for the rest of the season.

“Maybe that small sample that he gave us was enough to show that he can be fully recovered from this injury,” Colbert said. “Whether he can sustain it through an offseason, training camp, preseason, regular season, we won't know. But what he showed us in that one day of practice we're very encouraged where he is right now.”