Free Agency 2003: Part VII - Linebacker

There is little doubt the Steelers have one of the best groups of starting linebackers in the league. Outside linebackers Joey Porter and Jason Gildon combined for 18 sacks in 2002, while James Farrior and Kendrell Bell form the fastest tandem of inside linebackers the Steelers have ever had.

In fact, Porter, Gildon and Bell were all Pro Bowl players this season and Farrior wasn't far behind.

But when you look a little deeper, problems can be seen with the Steelers' linebacking corps.

Bell had problems staying healthy in 2002, but was a force when he was.

Gildon is entering his 10th NFL season and got 5.5 of his nine sacks last season in the team's final four games. He was largely ineffective for the entire first-half of the season.

What little depth there is, could be hurt badly as backup outside linebacker Clark Haggans is scheduled to become a restricted free agent. Haggans could get some offers after recording 6.5 sacks as a rush end in the dime defense last season.

If Haggans goes elsewhere, that would leave the Steelers with only Justin Kurpeikis to back up Porter and Gildon, not a good thought.

Things aren't much better on the inside, where Mike Jones proved he can't play any more, John Fiala is coming off a major knee surgery, and Larry Foote followed up a tough rookie season by getting into a brawl at a pizza joint in Ann Arbor, Michigan. If Haggans signs elsewhere, the Steelers will be left with the least amount of depth they've had at linebacker since Bill Cowher became head coach in 1992.

That could force them to burn a high draft choice on an outside linebacker - something the team will likely do - or dive into free agency for a player who can serve as a backup this season and possibly a starter in 2004 if the team decides to dump Gildon. The linebacker position is strongly stocked this year in free agency, as a number of big-name players stand ready to test the waters.

But don't expect the Steelers to make a pitch for Cincinnati's Takeo Spikes, Atlanta's Keith Brooking or Seattle's Anthony Simmons.

If the Steelers go free agent shopping for a linebacker, it will be for a bargain guy. And with six or seven top-notch linebackers available this year, the market could be ripe for the Steelers to acquire a solid player for a decent salary.

At the outside position, Buffalo's Keith Newman and Houston's Keith Mitchell are intriguing, especially since both have worked in a 3-4 defense.

On the inside, veterans Ronald McKinnon of Arizona, and Chris Draft of Atlanta could get looks.

Another player to watch will be Carolina's Hannibal Navies, who could play inside or outside in the Steelers defense.

Dale Lolley

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