"My time might be winding down at that position. It's just a matter of when the coaches throw him in there." -- Larry Foote
June 11, 2008 4:00 AM
Steelers 2007 No. 1 draft pick Lawrence Timmons.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As Big Brown discovered, nothing is a sure thing in sports, not even a 1-7 shot. The closest, though, might be this: If you're drafted in the first round by the Steelers, you will have a starting job no later than your second pro season.
Only one of their first-round draft choices did not become a regular starter by at least his second season since the infamous Huey Richardson in 1991. That was offensive tackle Jamain Stephens, a monumental bust of a pick in '96. Stephens did not become a regular until '98 and was cut the night after he collapsed, out of shape, during running drills on the first day of training camp the next season.
Those are the cold, hard facts that face Larry Foote as he tries to hold onto his starting job at inside linebacker this spring and summer. Foote has been the Steelers' starting mack inside linebacker the past four seasons, lining up next to James Farrior. During that time, he started all 64 games and led the team with 123 tackles in 2005, despite not playing in their dime defense on passing downs.
Looming large behind him on the spring depth chart is Lawrence Timmons, the Steelers' first-round choice in 2007, the 15th overall pick and the first under Mike Tomlin's watch.
The result of the competition going on at the mack linebacker looks inevitable.
"I don't think it's competition," Foote said after another spring practice. "I really think it's just a matter of time until they throw him in there, just because of the politics of the game -- and it looks like he can play."
That's a major difference between Timmons and Stephens/Richardson, each of whom showed a stunning inability to play on the pro level right from the start. Timmons played mostly on special teams last season and has displayed great speed and quickness in practices.
He must show he knows the defense and has the football instincts that mesmerized Tomlin when he saw him at Florida State.
"We don't know yet because he hasn't been out there," Foote said of Timmons' limited play in games, "but it looks like he can get it down.
"My time might be winding down at that position. It's just a matter of when the coaches throw him in there."
Foote won't give up his four-year hold on the job without a fight, despite his words that merely reflect an understanding of the situation.
"My whole career has been up and down. I've been in this spot before. You can't worry about that stuff. When they feel like he's ready, I'm quite sure he's going to be in there."
Farrior was a first-round draft choice of the New York Jets who had trouble finding a regular position until he signed with the Steelers as a free agent in 2002 and flourished here. He, too, believes Timmons can handle the job, but will have to pry it away from Foote's grasp first.
"It's not going to be an easy win if he's trying to take the spot," Farrior said. "We all want to win and we all want to do what's best for the team. Whatever that is and whatever the coaches ask us to do we have to do."
It's feasible that ultimately Timmons could play the buck linebacker position, the one Farrior holds. Barring injuries, that won't happen this season, but Farrior, 33, enters the final season of his contract, and Timmons' abilities seem suited more for the buck than the mack.
The buck must drop and cover receivers more often, must be quick and fast -- it's a more athletic position. The buck usually stays on the field in the dime defense as the lone inside linebacker; he's the one who calls the defensive signals, and Farrior will wear the helmet with the radio receiver in it this season.
Tomlin does not publicly analyze the various competitions on his team this spring, but he's known to be excited about Timmons' possibilities. He's having a much better time of it than he did as a rookie, when his hamstring was injured in the first minicamp practice and he missed the rest of the spring drills with his new teammates.
"He's healthy, for one," Farrior said. "And I think this offseason gave him some time to reflect and look back on the defense and try to really understand it. I think he's coming along just fine."
NOTE -- Instead of putting his players through practice yesterday, Tomlin took them bowling. They practice today and wind up their spring sessions tomorrow.