Projecting OLBs a tough task for GMs

Ray Fittipaldo 8 years ago

In the early days of the Bill Cowher era the Steelers were able to wait until the later rounds of the draft to select outside linebackers. The Steelers were one of only a few teams in the NFL to employ the 3-4 defense, and as a result, 3-4 outside linebackers were not in high demand.

The Steelers drafted Jason Gildon, Joey Porter and Mike Vrabel in the third round. When they made a mistake on an outside linebacker, such as selecting Steven Conley in the third round in 1996, it didn’t sting as much because they had higher picks to address other needs.

As more teams began using the 3-4 defense the Steelers were forced to use higher picks on outside linebackers. In 2003, the Steelers missed when they drafted Alonzo Jackson in the second round with the No. 59 overall pick, but that didn’t wreck their draft because they hit big-time in the first round on Troy Polamalu.

In 2007 and 2010 they selected LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds in the second round. Woodley was very good for a few years and helped the Steelers win a Super Bowl. Worilds has come into his own the past two seasons after a slow start to his career.

In those years the Steelers took future Pro Bowlers Lawrence Timmons and Maurkice Pouncey in the first round.

Now, with more than half the league running a 3-4, teams, including the Steelers, are drafting outside linebackers in the first round. That puts a lot more pressure on scouts and general managers to get their evaluations right.

Teams no longer can afford to make a bad evaluation on an outside linebacker. If they do, it has the potential to adversely affect their team for years to come.

In 2013, the Steelers selected outside linebacker Jarvis Jones in the first round. In his first two NFL seasons Jones has three sacks.

Jones was handed a starting job as a rookie, but had to be replaced early in the season because he was ineffective. He was named a starter again last season, but a wrist injury forced him to miss nine games in the middle of the season. He never regained his starting job.

The jury remains out on Jones, but he is trending more toward bust than good pick at this point.

The Steelers are not the only team in recent years to invest first-round picks on edge rushers and come away disappointed. The No. 3 overall pick in 2013 was Dion Jordan, who also has just three sacks in his first two seasons. Barkevious Mingo, the No. 6 overall pick of the Browns, had just two sacks in 11 starts last season and just seven overall in his first two seasons. Bjoern Werner, the No. 24 overall pick, has 6 ½ sacks in his first two seasons and was inactive for the AFC championship game against the Patriots because he fell out of favor with the coaching staff by the end of the season.

The only edge rusher from the first round in 2013 who can be considered a good pick at this point is Ziggy Ansah of the Lions. Ansah, who was No. 5 overall, has 15 ½ sacks.

The 2012 edge rushers selected in the first round did not fare much better. That group includes Bruce Irvin, Quinton Coples, Melvin Ingram, Shea McClellin, Chandler Jones and Whitney Mercilus. Irvin, Coples and Mercilus have been good but not great. The best of that group so far is Jones, who has 23 ½ sacks for the Patriots in three seasons.

Of the rookie edge rushers from last season only Khalil Mack had a really good year. The jury remains out on No. 1 overall pick Jadaveon Clowney, Dee Ford, Demarcus Lawrence and other first-rounders.

The Steelers once again are in the market for an outside linebacker. Jarvis Jones is the only outside linebacker under contract for next season. Even if the Steelers re-sign Worilds they need to rebuild depth at the position.

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock addressed the issues teams have evaluating edge rushers and pointed out some problems with the top prospects in this year’s draft as they transition to the NFL.

The top edge rusher prospects are Randy Gregory of Nebraska, Shane Ray of Missouri, Dante Fowler Jr. of Florida and Vic Beasley of Clemson.

“It's a hard evaluation,” Mayock said. “First and foremost, you have to be a great pass rusher or have the ability to become a great pass rusher. I think when you look at Fowler, Gregory and Ray, all three of them can. The second thing is you've got to be tough enough and big enough to set a physical edge. That's why I get nervous a little bit about Gregory, Ray, Vic Beasley. Let's see what they weigh [at the combine] and what their body types look like. Because in the NFL, you've got to be able to play the run game and go up against those big tackles and guards and hold your own. You get a little nervous.

“So a guy like Vic Beasley, who is a gifted, gifted pass-rusher, if he's only 230, and doesn't have the explosion to get under people and play with leverage and power, it's hard to say that he's going to translate to the NFL. I think guys have to bring power and strength into the equation, and sometimes that gets overlooked.”

The Steelers know that all too well. The main criticism of Jones through two seasons is his physical stature and his inability to get off blocks in the run game and to generate second moves on the pass rush after his initial rush is thwarted.

Jones can still become an effective player for the Steelers, but his early struggles illustrate the problems with selecting edge rushers in the first round. It’s a hard evaluation and it’s much more difficult for teams to overcome mistakes in the first round than the second or third round.