Steelers' position outlook: inside linebacker

PITTSBURGH -- This is the next in a series that takes a post-free agency, post-draft look at the all of the positions with the exception of quarterback.

Our seventh look is at the position the Pittsburgh Steelers addressed with the 15th overall pick in the draft.

Inside linebacker

Who is new: Ryan Shazier. The Steelers took the former Ohio State star with their first draft pick when most thought they should address cornerback in the first round.

Who is gone: Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester. Foote recently signed a one-year contract with the Cardinals, and Sylvester remains unsigned.

Returning starters: Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams. Timmons turned in another Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2013, leading the Steelers with 155 tackles and also registering three sacks and intercepting two passes. Timmons will set the defense as the strongside inside linebacker this season. Williams started 11 games as a rookie and made steady progress, but the 2013 sixth-round draft pick will have a hard time holding off Shazier because of the latter’s speed and ability to play in space.

Most significant addition: Shazier. The 6-1, 237-pounder adds speed and athleticism to the defense, and the Steelers will take advantage of both by moving Shazier all over the field. He should also help their pass rush and allow defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to get creative when drawing up blitzes. It will surprise no one if Shazier opens the season as a starter.

Most significant loss: Foote. The steady veteran started on the teams that played in three Super Bowls and won two of them from 2005-10. Foote, a locker-room favorite, set the defense, and his loss to an arm injury last season really hurt the Steelers. The organization, however, wanted to get younger at linebacker. That led to Foote’s release.

On outside looking in: Sean Spence. The 2012 third-round pick would have been a big part of the defense had he not suffered a career-threatening injury during a preseason game his rookie season. Spence has made incredible progress but his game is predicated on speed, so he has to show the Steelers his knee will hold up. They will give him every chance to do so in offseason practices and training camp.

Hidden number: One of the most productive players on the Steelers’ defense is also one of its most durable. Timmons has played in every game but two since the Steelers took him in the first round of the 2007 draft. The seventh-year veteran has started 53 consecutive regular-season games, the longest streak of any Steeler.

Outlook: A position that had some question marks looks a whole lot better, especially if Shazier is as good as advertised. He could team with Timmons to give the Steelers one of the better inside linebacker tandems in the league. Williams and Terence Garvin provide solid depth, and the Steelers get a bonus if Spence is able to contribute. They also drafted Jordan Zumwalt in the sixth round, and the former UCLA standout could provide depth at inside and outside linebacker.