Steelers Draft 2012: Linebackers

Age and injury aren't the only reasons for the Steelers to be looking so intently at linebackers this draft season. There's also strong statistical evidence in support. Jim Wexell explains.

The lifeblood of the Pittsburgh Steelers failed them last year.

Their group of linebackers, the heart of their 3-4 defense, had one of its worst statistical seasons in decades.

Injuries played a part. So did age. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley saw double-digit sack streaks stopped when they – hurting and hurt, respectively – finished with 9 sacks apiece.

James Farrior had only 2 sacks and was released. Lawrence Timmons was moved outside and back inside and had only 2 sacks. Backups Jason Worilds and Larry Foote had 3 and 1½ sacks.

The defense accounted for only 35 sacks, lowest since the 2003 defense had 35 and the 1990 defense had 34.

Worse was the scant number of "splash plays," as coach Mike Tomlin likes to call them.

To quantify "splash plays," add interceptions and forced fumbles, and by that measurement last year's Steelers linebackers made only 6 "splash plays."

That measure was the worst in the 13 seasons Dick LeBeau has spent on the Steelers' defensive staff.

In defenses LeBeau has coached here (three seasons secondary; 10 seasons coordinator), the top six linebackers have never had less than 12 interceptions and forced fumbles.

The previous 3-4 defenses pale when comparing sacks and/or "splash plays" to the LeBeau-era 3-4s, but only one other time has a group of 3-4 Steelers linebackers made only six "splash plays" – and that was in the strike-shortened 1987 season (Cole, Hinkle, Little, Merriweather).

The Steelers began playing the 3-4 defense in 1982.

Perhaps this all helps us better understand why the Steelers are looking so intently at linebackers this draft season.

Whether they're looking to replace Farrior, or moving Worilds inside, or searching for the 34-year-old Harrison's eventual replacement, or whether they're merely reacting to statistical evidence, the Steelers are making no secret about their interest.

These are the main outside linebacker candidates:

* Nick Perry (6-2.6, 271, 4.58) – No one his size at the combine was as fast, but a 4.66 20-yard shuttle does not indicate a smooth transition from DE to OLB. The two best Pac-12 OTs said at the combine that Perry is the real deal.

* Whitney Mercilus (6-3.5, 254, 4.68) – Should be nicknamed "Ming" by now. Mercilus was outstanding against Penn State and Ohio State. Similar in size and style to Joey Porter, but the redshirt junior had only one good year.

* Courtney Upshaw (6-1.5, 272, 4.79) – Alabama cross between Harrison and Woodley has even more trouble than Woodley cutting weight.

* Shea McClellin (6-3.3, 260, 4.66) – Those who subscribe to KEI theory (strength + jump numbers = explosiveness) won't like this Boise Stater, but the DE can get downfield to cover. Also, wouldn't shut up about his hero Mike Vrabel at the combine.

* Andre Branch (6-4.2, 259, 4.69) – Steelers had him in for a visit, but peg this Clemson DE as a too-late first-rounder/too-early second-rounder.

* Bruce Irvin (6-3, 245, 4.44) – Former WVU 3-3 backup DE had the best agility times of every front-seven player at the combine (and all but one safety in each category). The downside is he's been in jail and was arrested again recently for a minor disturbance. Steelers scouts can dream, though.

* Olivier Vernon (6-2.1, 261, 4.77) – True junior DE sat out six games for "impermissible benefits" last season at Miami. Right age and position for the Steelers.

* Cam Johnson (6-3.4, 268, 4.81) – Steelers also had this Virginia pass-rusher in for a visit. Reminiscent on the field of Clark Haggans, without the heart.

And here are the inside linebackers:

* Luke Kuechly (6-3.2, 242, 4.61) – Don't know whether he's the next Jack Lambert or the next Jack Ham. Best instincts I've seen from a college linebacker in years.

* Dont'a Hightower (6-2.2, 265, 4.64) – Big, fast, intimidating, intelligent leader would fit right into Farrior's "buck," or playcalling, position.

* Lavonte David (6-0.5, 233, 4.59) – Nebraska captain should last into early second round, or could be Tomlin curveball in first.

* Mychal Kendricks (5-11.1, 239, 4.46) – Cal MLB put up top times and jumps at the combine, but will likely be overdrafted. Reportedly struggled at the combine whiteboard.

* James-Michael Johnson (6-1.1, 241, 4.66) – If Hightower's not there in the first, wait for this MLB from Nevada

* DeMario Davis (6-2, 235, 4.56) – … or this MLB from Arkansas State in the middle rounds. Followers of aforementioned KEI theory call Davis the second most explosive athlete behind Nick Perry. Stood up Cordy Glenn twice at the Senior Bowl to tackle RBs.

* Ronnell Lewis (6-1.6, 253, 4.67) – Like Irvin, Lewis was a backup 3-3 DE for a coach who didn't know how to use him. A true junior, Lewis is a fearsome special-teams killer. But where to play him?

* Nigel Bradham (6-1.7, 241, 4.59) – Was shown around Florida State campus during his recruiting visit by Timmons. Would have to play "mack" and move Timmons to the more cerebral "buck," but for whatever reason the Steelers are teaching Timmons to play OLB instead of the captain's position.

* Travis Lewis (6-1.3, 246, 4.77) – Overhyped since his freshman year at Oklahoma, this Larry Foote clone could be underrated by now.

* Danny Trevathan (6-0.2, 237) – No one else likes this small, slow and ultra-productive Kentucky overachiever. But would not surprise me if he becomes a solid starter in the league.

Wexell's Value Board for the Pittsburgh Steelers

First Round – Luke Kuechly, Boston College; Dont'a Hightower, Alabama; Nick Perry, USC.

Second Round – Lavonte David, Nebraska.

Third Round – James-Michael Johnson, Nevada; Olivier Vernon, Miami.

Fourth Round – Demario Davis, Arkansas State; Nigel Bradham, Florida State; Bobby Wagner, Utah State.

Fifth Round – Miles Burris, San Diego State; Kyle Wilber, Wake Forest; Travis Lewis, Oklahoma.

Seventh Round – Danny Trevathan, Kentucky; Sammy Brown, Houston; Adrian Robinson, Temple; Jerrell Harris, Alabama.

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