The identity of the Pittsburgh Steelers has essentially always been tied to two positions – running back on offense, and linebacker on defense. From Jack Lambert to Jack Ham to Robin Cole to Mike Merriweather to Greg Lloyd to Kevin Greene to Levon Kirkland to Jason Gildon to Joey Porter to James Farrior to James Harrison to LaMarr Woodley – and everywhere in between, the Steelers have been a linebacker factory since 1970.
The Steelers are now moving forward without LaMarr Woodley (now officially an Oakland Raider) and are two years removed from releasing former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (now officially…unemployed). The team has decided that the future for the position lies with OLB Jason Worilds, OLB Jarvis Jones and what will be a cast of unproven commodities. The 2014 NFL Draft contains several fantastic possibilities for Pittsburgh at both linebacker positions. A team with as many needs as the Steelers may choose to go the route they have been so successful with in the past and find the next great Steelers linebacker.
So far in our Steelers Draft Options articles, we have looked deeply at safety, wide receiver, tight end and defensive back. Today, we will look at the potential linebackers who may be on the board when the Steelers come calling with the No. 15 overall pick. Pittsburgh is unique in that they are able to find both true linebackers, as well as college defensive ends that they can mold into NFL outside linebackers in the defense of Dick LeBeau. Porter andWoodley – to name just two – came to the team via that route. Porter is now back with the Steelers as a special defensive assistant to work with the young linebackers of the future, and his input and intensity should be a major asset to the Steelers as they continue the transition from an older defense to a new, young, hungry defense.
The 2014 NFL Draft class contains a wide array of linebackers and 4-3 college defensive ends whom the Steelers could target in both the early and middle rounds of the draft this May. Even with all of this talent in the draft pool, one player looms above all of the rest. He is OLB Khalil Mack of the University of Buffalo. Mack is a certified beast of a player who is slated to be chosen within the top 10 (and possibly top five) picks. He is a player that would fit like a glove in the Steelers 3-4 defense as a pass-rushing outside linebacker, a player who could step in and start right away. Unfortunately, the Steelers will not have the opportunity to draft Khalil Mack, as he will already be breaking in a new draft day cap and jersey from either Jacksonville, Tennessee or possibly Cleveland by the time the Steelers go on the clock. Mack is quite possibly tied with Clemson WR Sammy Watkins as the most NFL-ready prospect in this draft class. He is a wrecking ball of speed and strength, has the instincts and toughness teams look for in a first-round pick and will be an instantaneous impact player wherever he lands. We are going to skip over reviewing Mack any further, simply because barring any miracle the Steelers will have zero chance to draft the Buffalo Bull.
However, beyond Mack, there are several more fantastic-looking options for Pittsburgh should they decide to choose a linebacker in round one. Let’s take a look at the players who could end up wearing black and gold on draft day.
ILB C.J. Mosley – Alabama Crimson Tide – 6-foot, 2-inches 234 pounds – 21 years old
Alabama continues to pour NFL-ready defensive players into the league every year, and C.J. Mosley is next in line from Tuscaloosa. A two-time first-team All American (2012-2013), the 2013 Butkus Award Winner as the best linebacker in the Nation, and a finalist for the Bednarik Award for the best overall defensive player in the Nation, Mosley has done it all in his four-year college career. In 31 starts for the Crimson Tide, Mosley tallied 175 solo tackles, 6.5 sacks, five interceptions, two forced fumbles and three defensive touchdowns. He anchored the Nation’s cumulative No. 1 defense over the past four years, and was seen as a leader on and off the field. His desire and tenacity just expand his worth even further than his stat line.
For an inside linebacker, Mosley has average size at 234 pounds. His build is leaner than it is muscular, although he showed at the NFL Combine that his physique could be compared to anyone in the draft. He was a workout monster, as it has been said he lived in the Alabama weight room. Mosley has developed into a solid run stopper who can also drop into coverage and has the speed and guile to effectively cover both slot receivers and tight ends. He tackles with explosion, perfect form and drive. He is a classic inside linebacker that could immediately fill the Steelers “mack/weakside” spot next to Lawrence Timmons to create a strong interior linebacker unit in the LeBeau 3-4 defense. Longer-term, he could end up as the “buck” in the Steelers defense, calling the defensive plays and directing traffic like James Farrior and Larry Foote have in the past. At Alabama, his leadership in the middle of the defense allowed every player around him to position themselves perfectly for the coming play. That knowledge will translate to the NFL through the passion Mosley has for film study.
Mosley has encountered a few small injuries during his college career that cost him game time. These minor elbow, hip and shoulder injuries will force teams to evaluate his durability. Mosley is a three-down linebacker who has played a major role on a National Championship Team in 2012 and was the defensive standout for an 11-2 Alabama team in 2013. He has the instincts and desire to be a Pro Bowl-level NFL inside linebacker within two years. The Steelers may have a chance to draft Mosley at No. 15, depending on which team drafts Khalil Mack and if the other linebacker-hungry teams ahead of Pittsburgh (Jacksonville, Tennessee, Buffalo and Cleveland) decide to go with a different position early in round one.
OLB Anthony Barr – UCLA Bruins – 6-foot, 5-inches 255 pounds – 21 years old
A pass-rushing specialist, Anthony Barr projects as a top-line NFL outside linebacker who could play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 set. Barr has drawn comparisons to Terrell Suggs during his workouts at the Combine and UCLA Pro Day. After starting his college career as a legendary prep-school running back and suiting up on offense for his freshman and sophomore seasons, Barr switched to outside linebacker prior to his junior (2012) campaign. It was the right move, as he immediately became a force for UCLA. In two seasons at the position, he tallied 105 solo tackles, 41.5 tackles for loss, 23.5 sacks, and ten forced fumbles. Called a “physical specimen” by former head coach Jim Mora, Barr showed at the Combine why many NFL scouts think he has the tools to be a prolific edge-pass rusher in the NFL. He ran a 4.66-second 40-yard dash, easily in the top ten for linebackers. His 34.5-inch vertical jump was impressive and showed his ability to get up and bat down passes at the line of scrimmage. He ran a 6.82-second three-cone drill, good for third among linebackers. His 4.19-second 20-yard shuttle showed his outstanding burst and was a preview of his ability to blow by offensive linemen using just his game speed.
A sure tackler, Barr uses his athleticism to track down ball carriers from sideline to sideline. He hits likes a hammer when he makes a tackle, and he earned a reputation as a player who puts quarterbacks out of commission when he gets his 9-3/8 inch hands on them. Only downfall is his lack of experience at the position, which also means his best football might truly be ahead of him – a scary thought for opposing offensive coordinators. It would not be a surprise to see Barr eventually talk his coaching staff into letting him handle some goal-line carries on offense once he firmly establishes himself in the league. His high school rushing numbers are Los Angeles-area legend. He has even returned punts and kickoffs early in his UCLA days. Barr is a special athlete who should become a double-digit sack machine and Pro Bowl outside linebacker within his first two years in the pros. The Steelers will have an opportunity to draft Anthony Barr at No. 15 if they so desire.
OLB Ryan Shazier – Ohio State Buckeyes – 6-foot, 1-inches 237 pounds – 21 years old
Few players made the impression that Ryan Shazier did in Indianapolis at the 2014 NFL Combine. A top-performer in the Vertical Jump (42.0 inches), the Broad Jump (130.0 inches), the three-cone drill (6.91 seconds) and the bench press (25 reps of 225lbs.), Shazier turned heads all week. While it is difficult to put too much stock in a combine performance, it was simply just another notch on the belt for Shazier, who has been impressive on the field for the Buckeyes since he won a starting slot in 2012.
In three seasons with Ohio State, Shazier tallied 210 solo tackles, 15.0 sacks and nine forced fumbles. His 2013 junior season was one for the record books, as he finished third in the entire country with 144 total tackles and second in tackles for loss (24.0). While anchoring the Buckeye defense, Shazier also acted as a de-facto captain on that side of the ball. His film shows a defender who is quick to the tackle, has the athleticism to slip blocks and who is an explosive tackler. Shazier is tremendous at open-field tackles behind the line of scrimmage, as noted by his 39.5 tackles for loss during his 2012 and 2013 seasons. At just 21 years old, Shazier is also young enough to continue adding muscle mass to his 6-foot, 1-inch frame. A finalist for the Butkus Award and a first-team All-American in 2013, Shazier looks like a player who could develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber 3-4 weakside ILB.
The downsides to Shazier as the draft approaches are his current lack of size, and a tendency to be overly-aggressive. Shazier was only a two-year starter at Ohio State (29 starts total), so he will need to learn on the job.
The Steelers will need to decide on Ryan Shazier early, as he is projected to come off the board between the late first-round and early second-round. He probably will not be available when Pittsburgh comes back around for the No. 46 pick in round two.
DE/OLB Trent Murphy – Stanford Cardinal – 6-foot, 5-inches 250 pounds. – 23 years old
The leader of the Stanford Cardinal defense since 2011, Murphy is a massive prospect who has the versatility to fit into a 4-3 defense as a DE, or as a 3-4 defense as a LOLB. The fifth-year senior was a three-year starter for Stanford after redshirting in 2009 and missing most of 2010 with an injury. Murphy was a first-team All-PAC-12 pick in both 2012 and 2013, and a consensus first-team All-American in 2013. He led all of the FBS with 15.0 sacks last season, and totaled 32.5 sacks during his college career.
Murphy looks to be a future NFL pass-rushing specialist who has the size and agility to eventually become a three-down OLB. Initially, he may be used as a situational pass-rusher until he adjusts to the speed of the NFL game. On film, Murphy shows a penchant for controlling the line of scrimmage and zeroing in on the ball carrier in the backfield. Labeled as having a “throwback” football personality for NFL.com experts, Murphy is very vocal and hard-nosed on and off the field.
While he has the size to play immediately at the pro level, Murphy is not the most athletic linebacker in this draft. His combine performance did not help his draft stock, with a 4.86-second 40-yard dash the main culprit for his current slide into the second-to-third round range. He also showed average strength for his size, with only 19 reps of 225lbs. in the bench press exercise. While his dash time was less than stellar, he did show good agility in the three-cone drill (6.78 seconds, second overall among linebackers), which many consider a good sign.
Murphy has also developed the reputation of being a good “big game” performer. His game film from the 2013 PAC-12 Championship game against Arizona State and the 2013 Rose Bowl Game against Michigan State show a player who is motivated by high stakes. Murphy is currently tracking as an early second-round to mid third-round draft pick, so Pittsburgh could potentially have a shot at him in round two if they so desire.
ILB Chris Borland – Wisconsin Badgers – 5-foot, 11-inches 248 pounds – 22 years old
The University of Wisconsin has a reputation for developing tough, throwback-type players – and Chris Borland is no exception. A three-year starter, Borland is a stout, multi-talented defender who totaled 17.0 sacks and a Wisconsin-record 14 forced fumbles during his career. Borland is a tackling machine, with a low center of gravity and game-time intensity that make for a fun player to watch. It is easy to imagine him in the middle of the Steelers 3-4 defense, piling up tackles in the run game like former Steelers ILB Larry Foote.
I try very hard to be impartial when doing these previews, but this is a case where I just can’t say enough about an individual player. Borland strikes me as a player who was born to play on the Dick LeBeau defense. I will just let his highlight video do the talking.
Here are a few more mid-to-late round linebackers who Pittsburgh may take a look at this May.
OLB Kyle Van Noy (6-foot, 3-inches 243 pounds) of BYU has become one of the most talked-about players in the upcoming draft. Van Noy has the versatility to play in either a 3-4 defense at ROLB, or in a 4-3 as a “Sam”. A very fun player to watch on film, Van Noy is a solid pass rusher and a sound tackler against the run game. His lean build and fantastic athleticism seem out of place for a linebacker, and his game speed makes him look more like a safety. At BYU, Van Noy actually returned some punts in 2011 and 2012. Once he gets into an NFL training program, Van Noy could put on another 10-15 pounds of muscle and still maintain his speed. He will need to work on his field vision and rush techniques, but should contribute immediately on special teams and as a third-down nickel linebacker. Van Noy is slated to be picked between the early-second to mid-third round in the draft.
OLB Jeremiah Attaochu (6-foot, 3-inches 252 pounds) of Georgia Tech is the all-time sack leader for the Yellow Jackets (31.5 career sacks). He started 13 games at DE in 2013, but projects as a 3-4 right outside linebacker in the NFL. Born in Nigeria, Attaochu played his high school football at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington D.C., a school that has produced several notable NFL players. He will only be 21 years old as a rookie, allowing him time to develop through experience. Attaochu chases down quarterbacks with a good burst off the line and the speed to quickly close the pocket. A disruptive force who recorded four sacks in a 2013 game vs. Georgia, this is a player who is definitely going to be a solid professional. Look for Attaochu to come off the board no later than round four.
ILB Jordan Zumwalt (6-foot, 4-inches 235 pounds) of UCLA is an ultra-competitive defender who could end up being one of the surprises of the 2014 Draft. While playing in the shadow of super-prospect Barr, Zumwalt quietly put up a solid career at UCLA. The 22-year-old is a tone-setter on defense, a player who showed up best in big games and accumulated 165 solos tackles through sheer determination and throwing his body around fearlessly. Zumwalt has played every linebacker position and even contributed as a kickoff/punt returner and short-yardage fullback. He probably won’t be drafted until the fourth round at the earliest, but could come in immediately and contribute on special teams and quickly work his way into an ILB rotation as a nickel linebacker.
ILB Preston Brown (6-foot, 1-inch 251 pounds) of Louisville was rated as a late-round pick prior to the 2014 Combine, but after a good showing in pretty much every category, he has moved up to a third to fourth-round pick. Brown has great size and is an instinctive tackler who was a three-year starter for the Cardinals. He led Louisville with 98 tackles in 2013, and showed great coverage skills for an ILB. Brown has the leadership skills needed inside, and his football IQ is off the charts. The Steelers need to start accumulating quality depth at ILB, and Brown fits the bill as a player who could play either 3-4 ILB slot. He also played DB during his freshman and sophomore seasons.
The Steelers have a rich history of linebackers, and with a current depth chart that is extremely shallow, there is no doubt that Pittsburgh will seek out fresh talent in the 2014 NFL Draft. With a draft pool that is very top-heavy, Kevin Colbert and company will need to be on top of their game in this department come May.