Filling the Ryan Shazier void at ILB begins with free agency for Steelers

Avery Williamson, a valuable piece of Tennessee's defense in his four NFL seasons, could be on the Steelers' wish list at inside linebacker. Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

PITTSBURGH -- That the Steelers' need to improve the teeth of their defense is no secret. The team was left scrambling late in the season when linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a severe spinal injury Dec. 4. Pittsburgh signed veteran Sean Spence for run defense and brought in L.J. Fort for passing downs.

This is not a sustainable model for a team that gave up 801 rushing yards in its final six games.

To be sure, the Steelers can't adequately replace Shazier, whose range sideline-to-sideline is among the league's best from the inside linebacker spot. But the team can formulate a plan to aid starter Vince Williams, the only proven commodity on the inside.

The draft is the best option to find a player who fits today's linebacking style of chasing down ball carriers with elite speed; think Atlanta's Deion Jones, Tampa Bay's Kwon Alexander and others. A pair of projected first-rounders from the SEC, Alabama's Rashaan Evans and Georgia's Roquan Smith, have the lateral quickness necessary for this role.

But inside linebacker is an easy position to rebuild in the short term because free-agency options are largely affordable. There will be plenty of available players who aren't game-changers but would mark improvement.

Among recent free-agent ILB signings for modest prices:

Kevin Minter: $4.25 million in 2017 ($2.1 million guaranteed)

Zach Brown: $2.3 million in 2017 ($700,000 guaranteed)

NaVorro Bowman: $2.6 million in 2017 ($120,000 guaranteed, via Oakland after the 49ers released him)

Demario Davis: $2.25 million in 2017 ($100,000 guaranteed)

Those final three players combined for 389 tackles last season -- or $18,380 per tackle. All four are free agents once again.

The Steelers can find good players who shouldn't stretch them financially. Tennessee's Avery Williamson is 25 and recorded three sacks with 92 tackles last season. Buffalo's Preston Brown led the league in tackles and hasn't missed a game in four seasons. Denver's Todd Davis, who played on a $2.746 million restricted tender, was considered one of the leaders of the Broncos' defense.

The Steelers won't likely get a major star at this position, but they can certainly get production. Even a Pittsburgh team that prefers drafting and extending most of its key players is bracing for a potential addition.

"Obviously with Ryan [Shazier]'s injury and his situation, we understand that," general manager Kevin Colbert said. "We knew we would have to deal with it after the season. Tyler [Matakevich]'s certainly in the mix. That gives you an option. And again, we will continue to look at other options in free agency and the draft as well."

If the Miami Dolphins want to save $5.475 million against the cap by cutting Lawrence Timmons, perhaps a Steelers reunion is in order.