Cracking roster at linebacker isn't easy for rookies
August 23, 2011 4:15 AM
Offensive tackle Trai Essex signed a one-year deal Monday with the Steelers.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It's a daunting task for a rookie to enter the linebackers meeting room at Steelers headquarters with two roster cutdown dates still to go.
"Everywhere I turn in the meeting room there's an All-Pro," said Chris Carter, an outside linebacker the Steelers drafted four months ago in the fifth round.
That would include James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, who also was the NFL defensive player of the year in 2008. Their fourth starter, Lawrence Timmons, looks like a Pro Bowler in waiting. Even their backups are talented, with Larry Foote having started 97 games in nine seasons, and second-year linebackers Jason Worilds and Sylvester Stevenson on the rise.
Cracking the roster of Steelers linebackers isn't easy. Ask Thaddeus Gibson, a fourth-round pick who did not last two months last season. Or Bruce Davis, a third-round pick in 2008, and Alonzo Jackson, a second-round pick in '03. Each lasted only one season.
Yet there is at least one roster spot open and possibly two for a young linebacker to stick, and Carter and Mortty Ivy are making the most of the chance.
Carter came to the Steelers in typical fashion as an outside linebacker prospect; he played mostly defensive end at Fresno State in a 4-3 defense and will take some time to make the conversion.
Ivy's road was different, an undrafted rookie in 2010 from West Virginia through Gateway High School.
He signed with the Carolina Panthers and spent time on the practice squad there as well as that of the Miami Dolphins last season.
He signed with the Steelers in January.
Carter and Ivy have made plays in games, on special teams and in practices.
"You can make this team on special teams, that's really the only way you can make this team," said Farrior, the defensive captain. "With the good group of veterans we have, the best way is to work as hard as you can on special teams and that's what I tell them."
The Steelers kept nine linebackers on their roster last season but when they needed to add a defensive lineman after Aaron Smith was injured Oct. 24, they released Gibson and stayed with eight the rest of the season.
Keyaron Fox left and everyone else returned, so there is room for one, maybe two.
Foote made it in 2002 as a fourth-round pick staring at the likes of Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, Clark Haggans, defensive rookie of the year Kendrell Bell and the newly signed James Farrior in that same meeting room.
The years and faces change, but the talent at linebacker holds steady among the best in the NFL.
"That started back in the '90s with Greg Lloyd and those guys," Foote said. "People upstairs really value that and have a good eye for it."
And if they get it wrong, they don't compound it by keeping him too long, thus the Gibson and Davis releases of recent vintage. Neither played special teams.
"Coach Tomlin has been staying true to his word since I've been here," Foote said. "If you impress and you show up on that tape, we'll make room for you."
The minor knee injury to tackle Jonathan Scott was enough to throw a scare into the Steelers because they re-signed tackle/guard Trai Essex to a one-year contract.
Essex, who was drafted in the third round in 2005, has started 25 games for the Steelers at either tackle or guard. He won the right guard job in '09 and started all 16 games. He opened last season as the starter but sprained an ankle in the second game. He returned to start three more games at midseason but then lost his starting job to Ramon Foster.
Essex became an unrestricted free agent this year.
Scott left the game Thursday with a knee injury on the first play from scrimmage. There was no ligament damage, but the Steelers have no experienced backups at tackle and there had been talk of re-signing 36-year-old Flozell Adams.
The Steelers released first-year guard Nevin McCaskill to make room for Essex on the roster.