<
>

Pittsburgh Steelers' position outlook: inside linebackers

Under contract: Lawrence Timmons, Sean Spence, Vince Williams, Ryan Shazier, Terence Garvin

Free agents: None

The good: Timmons led the Steelers with a whopping 132 tackles -- safety Mike Mitchell was second on the team with 71 -- and made his first Pro Bowl in 2014. Spence completed his inspiring comeback from a career-threatening knee injury in 2012, playing in every game last season and recording 53 tackles and a sack. Spence and Williams alternated in the second half of the season with Spence playing in the base defense and Williams in the nickel. The Steelers have proven depth at inside linebacker, and imagine how good they could be if the speedy Shazier fulfills the potential Pittsburgh saw when it made him the 15th overall pick of the 2014 draft. Garvin is a core special-teams player who has position flexibility.

The bad: Shazier did not show much his rookie season in large part because injuries stunted his growth and sidelined him for a significant part of the preseason as well as seven regular-season games. The Steelers installed Shazier as a starter from the outset of offseason practices last May but they seem intent on making the Ohio State product earn his way onto the field -- something they should have done from the start.

The burning question: How will the rotation alongside Timmons play out next season? The Steelers would love nothing more than to scrap it because Shazier seizes the starting job and stays healthy enough -- and plays well enough -- to hold onto it in 2015. Spence and Williams are solid players but Shazier has a chance to be special. And the Steelers need young playmakers to emerge on a defense that managed just 33 sacks in 2014 and forced only 1.3 turnovers per game.

The money: Timmons has a base salary of $7.5 million in 2015 and a salary cap hit of $12.566 million. The Steelers could create some cap room by converting base salary into a signing bonus and spreading the bonus over the final two years of Timmons' contract. They are in good financial shape with the rest of their inside linebackers as the base salaries of Shazier, Spence and Williams are a combined $2.12 million in 2015.

Draft priority: None. The Steelers simply don't have room at inside linebacker, especially since 2014 sixth-round pick Jordan Zumwalt can also play there. The Steelers thought enough of Zumwalt to carry him on injured reserve the entire season after a nagging groin injury sidelined him for much of the preseason. The former UCLA star is essentially the draft pick that the Steelers add to inside linebacker this year.

He said it: “I think I've been pretty consistent throughout the Sean Spence thing about my position in terms of what he was capable of, even in disagreement with some people that I work with. I just know a lot about professional athletes. They don't get to this level of competition without having some unique qualities, particularly in the face of adversity, that allow them to overcome. I'm never surprised when these guys routinely overcome what (are) seemingly insurmountable odds. It was a good start for him in terms of getting back on the field, but I would imagine he's going to be working to ascend and he better because that's just the nature of this thing. The competition is going to continually get stiff and stiffer.” -- Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on Spence overcoming long odds to return to the field and his expectations for Spence moving forward.