On the Steelers: Offseason weights await rookie Jones

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Shortly after the Steelers completed their 8-8 season Sunday, Jarvis Jones struck the kind of pose in their locker room you might find in a muscle magazine.

There was just one thing missing: Muscle.

The rookie linebacker posed that way to emphasize one of his goals before his second NFL season — to get stronger.

“Absolutely, look at me,” Jones said, raising two arms that no one would mistake for those of his predecessor at right outside linebacker, James Harrison. “I need to get stronger, I need to get faster, I need to become a better student of the game. There’s a lot of stuff I need to work on.”

The Steelers knew that when they drafted him in the first round from Georgia. They also knew something else, that starting Jones as a rookie was not ideal but perhaps necessary with the loss of Harrison.

“Everybody talks about Jarvis coming in and stuff like that, and is Jarvis going to start his first year?” linebackers coach Keith Butler said after the draft in April. “We’ve never started a [rookie] linebacker since I’ve been here.”

Butler just completed his 11th season coaching the Steelers linebackers, but their history of not installing a rookie as one of the starting outside linebackers stretches back to at least the time when they switched to a 3-4 defense in 1982.

Neither did they start Jones, at least not in the opener. Jason Worilds started at right outside linebacker that day. But Jones was promoted for the second game and started four before losing that job back to Worilds.

Those were the early growing pains of a team struggling to win, and Mike Tomlin cited Worilds’ knowledge of the defense for going back to him. Jones was out of position too often in a defense in which few rookies have ever understood.

The coaches knew it was not ideal to press Jones into service when other rookies were permitted at least one season of apprenticeship at outside linebacker before they took over as starters. Those include some of their greatest defensive players in the 3-4 defense: Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. It took Worilds until his fourth season to shine.

Jones went on to play several series a game until he started four more times when Worilds moved to the left for an injured Woodley.

Because they likely must decide between Worilds and Woodley this year, Jones should be their starting outside linebacker from the beginning of the 2014 season.

The season’s final game Sunday was his best, and he showed what might be ahead for him. Starting on the right side, he led the Steelers with nine solo tackles (one for a loss), two deflected passes and a quarterback hurry in their 20-7 victory against the Cleveland Browns.

“Coming into this, I knew nothing is given to you,” Jones said. “You have to work hard for it. You just have to continue to chop wood and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”

The Steelers have a little different exercise in mind for Jones than wielding an axe. They likely sent him back to Georgia with a thick plan of what he must do to become stronger, so that next year when he strikes that pose it will be more imposing.

Should they stay or go?

The Steelers have 21 players who will become unrestricted free agents March 11 if the team does not sign them before then, one of the largest groups since true free agency began in the NFL in 1993.

There are no restricted free agents, as that designation was rendered virtually extinct by the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that required all draft picks to be signed to four-year contracts (a player became a restricted free agent if his contract expired after three years).

A handful of free agents should become priorities, such as linebacker Jason Worilds and receiver Jerricho Cotchery, along with others such as halfback Jonathan Dwyer, safety Will Allen and defensive linemen Ziggy Hood and Al Woods.

Such decisions and signings will not be imminent and will depend on other personnel moves as the Steelers manage a salary cap they now are projected to be above.

Their list of unrestricted free agents:

Wide receivers — Plaxico Burress, Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders.

Running backs — Dwyer, Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling.

Tight ends — David Johnson, Michael Palmer.

Offensive linemen — Fernando Velasco, Cody Wallace, Guy Whimper.

Defensive linemen — Hood, Brett Keisel, Woods.

Linebackers — Stevenson Sylvester, Jamaal Westerman, Worilds.

Defensive backs — Allen, Ryan Clark.

Special teams — Punter Mat McBriar, long-snapper Greg Warren.

A familiar name or two

The team signed seven players from its practice squad to the offseason roster: Halfback Alvester Alexander, wide receivers Justin Brown and Kashif Moore, guard Bryant Browning, safety Ross Ventrone and linebacker Kion Wilson.

Wilson started the second and third games of the season at inside linebacker after Larry Foote’s biceps injury. He lost that job to rookie Vince Williams in the fourth game.

Brown was the Steelers’ first sixth-round draft choice in 2013, taken ahead of Williams. He spent the entire season on the practice squad.

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