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Steelers Search for LT's Replacement

Dont'a Hightower is first up in search to replace Lawrence Timmons.

The Law Dawg is gone but not forgotten as the Pittsburgh Steelers begin meeting potential recruits to replace the linebacker who just signed with the Miami Dolphins.

Today the Steelers are hosting Dont'a Hightower, who's the high end of the replacement spectrum.

Hightower's seeking a deal in the $10-13 million per-year range, which might make sense for a team that could fit a new defensive captain who just turned 27 into it's pay scale between Le'Veon Bell and Cameron Heyward

But are the Steelers certain they would be getting their bang at the Buck?

Vince Williams could step up from the second team and certainly captain the Steelers from the Buck inside linebacker position, and he will no doubt stuff the run. He's done it before. Maybe he won't be as explosive as the 6-2 1/4, 265-pound Hightower, but is Hightower all that explosive? 

After all, we just watched 10 years of Lawrence Timmons

I recall on a visit to the Timmons family home in Florence, S.C. during his rookie season, and the house next door had been struck by lightning. It was an image that stuck during the training camps of Timmons' early years, when Mike Tomlin would routinely use him to put on full-contact theatrics. One backs-on-backers drill in particular left a rookie, Dezmond Sherrod, in a neck brace after a wild Friday night practice at Latrobe Stadium.

Timmons was explosive. And productive. And he played week in and week out. Timmons started the last 111 games (counting postseason) that the Steelers played. In his eight regular seasons as the starter, he averaged 95 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 passes defensed and 1.4 forced fumbles per season.

Hightower, in his five seasons as the starting inside linebacker for the New England Patriots, averaged 74 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 passes defensed and 0.4 forced fumbles per season.

Do those stats warrant such a big contract? 

Perhaps the stats are lower because Hightower has missed games with injuries. In 2013, he missed two games with ankle and knee issues; in 2014, he missed four games with knee problems and a torn labrum (which required post-season surgery); in 2015, he missed four games with rib and knee injuries; and last season, he had more shoulder trouble to go along with more knee trouble and he missed three games.

Does THAT warrant such a big contract?

Hightower is considered versatile not so much because of his coverage skills but because he can line up on the edge on pass downs. But he's had only 17 sacks in five seasons, and last year in the AFCCG he played only 52 percent of the snaps. 

Perhaps his knee was bothering him. Or perhaps he was pulled because the Steelers needed to throw. Hightower made only three tackles in that game. In the midseason game, he played 93 percent of the snaps and made only four tackles. Timmons made a combined 25 tackles in those two games.

Maybe Hightower will reach his full potential as a three-down terror once he's completely healthy. Of course, potential health isn't going to help him snag a $70 million deal with the Steelers.

Option Two for the Steelers is the draft. 

First-round possibilities include Haason Reddick and Zach Cunningham. Reddick is a converted defensive end, so that makes him a bit of a question mark as a projection, although his speed, strength and explosiveness could cause some pounding on the table in a victorious draft-room debate.

The other issue with drafting a player in the first round is that Williams is a team leader. Heyward's tweet the day Timmons left -- "Uh oh! Vince got the reigns now, keep your head on a swivel" -- sounded like something Curly Bill Brosius might tweet about Johnny Ringo of "Tombstone" fame.

No, don't mess with the chemistry. Williams is a team leader, he's effective and it's his turn. Does anyone really think the Steelers would put a rookie in front of a young team leader -- who's played well in previous replacement stints --  at such a detail-oriented position? 

It's doubtful.

Would they draft a first-rounder to sit the bench behind a team leader with the intention of grooming-to-replace? 

Maybe, if that player were to be sitting behind a 39-year-old. That's something all could understand.

How about a first-rounder to replace Williams on pass downs? 

Now we're advancing the conversation, because that's Vince's alleged weakness. And that price is what teams have begun paying in this pass-happy league. This year, the best "coverage backers" are safeties Jabrill Peppers and Obi Melifonwu. Drafting safeties to play that position on passing downs has been a trend of late in the NFL. 

In Deone Bucannon (6-1, 220, R1), Mark Barron (6-2, 213, R1) and Su'a Cravens (6-1, 222, R2), teams have drafted hard-hitting strong safeties and used them as $backers, or hybrid safety/linebackers, in their dime defenses. They were question marks because they were A.) projections and B.) first-round backups. 

But then again, Bucannon and Barron are now full-time starters and Cravens became a starter (3 games) before he was sidelined by an injury.

How did those three play in the last playoffs?

Well, their teams didn't make the playoffs, and that's part of the back-and-forth in a conversation meant for better football minds, but one which must be resumed when the Steelers bring the 6-3.7, 224-pound Melifonwu in for his scheduled visit.

The most logical alternative may be to find a backup inside linebacker in the second or third round, and to that end the Steelers have scheduled a visit with Ohio State's Raekwon McMillan.

McMillan was an underrated player on a young Ohio State defense. He was mainly a downhill player who didn't have to worry too much about downfield coverage because of OSU's talented secondary. 

McMillan did show quickness to the sidelines and also at the NFL Combine, where his numbers -- 6-1.7, 240, 4.61, 23 reps, 33 vj, 4.39 shuttle -- looked an awful lot like Timmons' -- 6-0.7, 234, 4.7, 25 reps, 35 vj, 4.32 shuttle -- at his Combine. 

Sometimes, the simple solutions are the best.

SCOUT / Florence, S.C. 2007


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