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Steelers Draft '17: Linebackers

Lawrence Timmons is gone and James Harrison needs an understudy. Here are multi-tiered plans for the Pittsburgh Steelers at each position.

Reuben Foster looked like Ryan Shazier playing middle linebacker for Alabama last season.

He was lightning-quick and always got to where he was going in a really bad mood.

Of course, the cost was expected to be exorbitant. Shazier was a middle-of-the-first player, and so, apparently, was Foster.

Until now. A report surfaced that Foster's rotator cuff has yet to heal from February surgery, necessitating another surgery. Alabama players already carry the reputation of being beat up, so rumor of a second shoulder surgery doesn't inspire confidence in first-round draftors.

However, the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking for starters. Would they take a chance on a falling and injured superstar?

That's not been their M.O., and perhaps Jarrad Davis, a violent thumper from Florida, could instead be their next "Law Dawg."

Lawrence Timmons has departed, and Davis -- whose main criticism is merely that he "tends to be overaggressive" -- would fit the first-round bill.

The Steelers, though, can get by with veterans Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich if they find a complementary coverage backer for pass downs. That brings us to Zach Cunningham (6-3 1/2, 234) out of Vanderbilt. 

Cunningham's tall enough to cover Rob Gronkowski, and runs well enough (4.67 40) to get deep down the seam. The problem with the long-limbed Cunningham is that he needs big bodies up front to keep him clean. And in the age of the 2-DL nickel fronts, that's a problem for a player who's more suited to playing 4-3 will backer.

The Steelers could find potential three-down ILBs in the third round, where Blair Brown (5-11 1/2, 238, 4.65), Jalen Reeves-Maybin (6-0 1/2, 230, 4.68) and Tanner Vallejo (6-1 1/2, 228, 4.67) should be available. 

An interesting late-round prospect is Jermaine Grace (6-0, 223, 4.57), who was kicked off the Miami team last year for an alleged role in receiving discounts on luxury car rentals. 

The Hurricanes' leading tackler in 2015 denied that he ever received the discounts (was allowed to keep his scholarship), and otherwise has a clean record. Grace hasn't played in 16 months, but is highly athletic, albeit raw and a bit thin.

The Steelers also want an outside linebacker to groom behind 39-year-old James Harrison. Their defense -- with so much nickel -- is evolving, so they may want more of a defensive end. But there are several college outside linebackers who should interest them, starting in the first round with T.J. Watt.

The younger brother of NFL star J.J. Watt is also a converted tight end. T.J. (6-4 1/2, 252, 4.69) developed quickly as an edge player at Wisconsin and enjoyed an outstanding Combine with a vertical of 37 inches and eye-popping agility times of 6.79 (3-cone) and 4.13 (shuttle).

He'll struggle against the run, and might not play much his first season, but Watt has the frame to add weight and the desire to get stronger and better. The genes and passion are there for superstardom.

Tyus Bowser (6-2 1/2, 247, 4.65) played in only eight games for Houston last season because of an orbital bone injury, and in those eight games dropped into coverage more than he rushed the passer. Bowser still managed 8.5 sacks and has become a fringe first-rounder with exciting power, agility and bend around the edge.

Ryan Anderson (6-2, 253) of Alabama is a fallback option in the third round. He didn't test well but has great play strength against the run and has the polish to make his share of big plays against the quarterback, and even in coverage.

Edge candidates who are primarily defensive ends will be discussed in the Defensive Line portion of this series.

MY TAKE

First LaMarr Woodley left, and then Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers don't have that blow-up toy at linebacker anymore. Jarrad Davis would remedy the situation, but it did take Timmons two years to learn the defense and take the starting position. Ben Roethlisberger might not be around to see the payoff with Davis, so I would make him a third or fourth priority at pick 30 and stick with Vince Williams. Finding a coverage backer to complement Williams might be the wiser way to proceed. 

As for the OLBs, T.J. Watt is getting all kinds of attention from Dallas and Green Bay just ahead of the Steelers' pick. If Watt makes it through, he could force a decision. Tyus Bowser and defensive ends such as Carl Lawson and Derek Rivers could either be among a group targeted for a second-round trade-up, or force a long wait to pick 62. Ryan Anderson in the third round would be a serviceable fallback if those guys don't make it.

VALUE BOARD

First Round -- T.J. Watt (OLB), Wisconsin; Jarrad Davis (ILB), Florida; Tyus Bowser (OLB), Houston.

Second Round -- Zach Cunningham (ILB), Vanderbilt.

Third Round -- Ryan Anderson (OLB), Alabama; Blair Brown (ILB), Ohio; Jalen Reeves-Mabin (ILB), Tennessee; Tanner Vallejo (ILB), Boise State. 

Fourth Round -- Vince Biegel (OLB), Wisconsin; Elijah Lee (ILB), Kansas State; Duke Riley (ILB), LSU.

Fifth Round -- Samson Ebukan (OLB), Eastern Washington; Matt Milano (ILB), Boston College; Steven Taylor (ILB), Houston.

Sixth Round -- Jermaine Grace (ILB), Miami; Jayon Brown (ILB), UCLA; Jordan Evans (ILB), Oklahoma.

(To read Jon Ledyard's profile on Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis, click here.)


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