On the Steelers: Vince Williams fights to regain inside edge at linebacker

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Vince Williams, by all accounts, had a representative rookie season for the Steelers. He started 11 games, more than first-round pick Jarvis Jones. He was ranked among the top 30 inside linebackers in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, just one spot behind teammate Lawrence Timmons at No. 26.

All things considered, he had to be feeling pretty good heading into his second season.

At least until the NFL draft happened.

The Steelers used two of their nine draft choices on inside linebackers, including the No. 15 overall pick on Ohio State's Ryan Shazier.

But that wasn't the worst part of the offseason for Williams. That came last week when Shazier lined up with the first-team defense in the first week of spring workouts without so much as a staged competition to knock Williams from his starting job.

"I'm not really disappointed because I understand there will always be competition here," Williams said. "Whether it was going to be [Sean] Spence coming back or even [Larry] Foote coming back before he got cut. I always knew there would be competition.

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"Even last year, we had 17 or 18 linebackers when I was drafted. There will always be competition at the linebacker spot, and I embrace it."

Williams has gone from starter to someone who will battle for a roster spot later this summer at training camp.

Spence, who missed the past two seasons with a knee injury, is participating in OTAs and is expected to be a full participant in training camp. Terence Garvin made the 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent last season and Jordan Zumwalt, a sixth-round pick from UCLA, will be in contention to make the team as well.

"We are going to have some great competition at inside linebacker," said linebackers coach Keith Butler.

Williams, a sixth-round pick last year out of Florida State, has something the others do not: starting experience in the NFL.

Williams finished last season with 53 tackles, eighth most on the team. He played 405 defensive snaps.

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"It was great," Williams said. "I could feel it getting better gradually. It gave me a big boost coming into this year. Now I've been out there. I've had the feel against real NFL competition, so I feel like a lot of things are slowing down now."

The Steelers turned to Williams as the starter last season after Foote was lost for the season. Veteran Kion Wilson started the next two games, but Williams supplanted him in the starting lineup by the fourth week and held onto the job for the remainder of the season.

In the offseason he studied every play of his rookie year and hopes the visual of re-watching the games will help in his progression from year one to year two in the NFL.

"Having a year's worth of film and to be able to go back over and watch it and understand why you made those mistakes, that's been really beneficial," he said.

Williams has been working with Spence on the second-team defense behind Shazier and Timmons. Garvin has been working with the third-team. Zumwalt is likely to receive third-team reps as well when he reports to the team after the UCLA school year is complete.

Competing for roster spots is an annual ritual for all NFL players, but especially for lower-round picks such as Williams, the No. 206 overall selection in 2013.

Teams attempt to improve their roster every year by signing free agents and drafting players. Williams knows what he is facing in his second season is simply life in the NFL.

"That's just how it is," he said. "That's how it goes."

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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