Linebacker Watch

Jim Wexell says the Steelers still need depth at both linebacker positions, and one player in particular could fill both needs this season.

The Steelers possess the finest linebacking corps in the NFL, and last year in the draft they added depth at both the inside and outside spots.

So the unit's settled for the time being, isn't it?

Well, maybe not.

With a spot still open for a fourth outside linebacker, and inside backer James Farrior turning 36 with 31-year-old Larry Foote and free agent Keyaron Fox behind him, there are still needs at both spots. If the Steelers could draft one player to take care of both needs, would they do it?

Say hello to Akeem Ayers.

A 4-3 outside linebacker at UCLA, Ayers (6-2.4, 254, 4.8) has the size coming out of college that Lawrence Timmons did not when the Steelers proclaimed him to be both an outside and inside linebacker the day they drafted him.

Ayers already has the size, but he most definitely doesn't have the speed. Ayers had a miserable combine, and that's the reason he could slide to pick 31 next Thursday night.

Would the Steelers use yet another premium pick on a linebacker?

Well, Mike Tomlin told prospects at his first combine in 2007 that he wanted to revamp the Steelers' linebacking corps, and he backed it up by putting James Harrison in the starting lineup, using a first-round pick on Timmons, and second-round picks on LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds.

It's possible Tomlin could add Ayers to that mix, but only if most, if not all, of his other first-round options are unavailable.

Since no other linebacker offers the type of versatility that Ayers does, the Steelers are unlikely to draft one in the second round. And an ideal down-the-road replacement for Farrior, Quan Sturdivant, won't last until the bottom of the third round.

If the Steelers do draft an inside linebacker, and carry him as a rare fifth ILB, he'd have to be a later-round special-teams demon, and that describes their only visiting linebacker, Marshall's Mario Harvey.

Harvey (5-11.2, 250) wasn't invited to the combine, but by most accounts has 4.6 speed and plays to it. He's a three-and-a-half year starter who captained the Thundering Herd defense last year and led the team in tackles a third consecutive season.

The Steelers might begin looking for that No. 4 OLB in the mid-rounds, where college defensive ends such as Sam Acho (6-1.5, 262, 4.68), Chris Carter (6-1.1, 248, 4.62) and Jeremy Beal (6-2.2, 262, 5.16) begin coming off the board.

Acho, another captain with outstanding character, had the best 3-cone time (6.69) of all edge players at the combine.

Speaking of combine numbers, Oklahoma State defensive end Ugo Chinasa (6-4.7, 264, 4.71) has 36-inch arms, the longest of any defender at Indianapolis. A long-range project who dropped into coverage occasionally in college, Chinasa is being touted for his outstanding work ethic and character.

Value Board

First round – Akeem Ayers, UCLA.

Third round – Sam Acho, Texas.

Fourth round – Chris Carter, Fresno State.

Fifth round – Mario Harvey, Marshall.

Favorite late-round sleeper: Ugo Chinasa, Oklahoma State.


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