Is Jarvis Jones the next in line of great Steelers linebackers?
LATROBE, Pa. -- History says the Pittsburgh Steelers know outside linebackers. How to find them. How to develop them. How to turn them loose to wreak havoc on the rest of the NFL.
It's not just a position of impact in Pittsburgh's defense. It's a legacy. A marquee-level launching pad that has helped cement the play-making reputations for such Steel City luminaries as Jack Ham, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter and most recently, James Harrison.
So it's quite the position to be in as an NFL rookie, if your name is Jarvis Jones, and you're the highest drafted outside linebacker in Steelers team history (No. 17 overall). No pressure there, kid, just go out there and earn your place in the pantheon. And right away would be nice.
"Oh, yeah, outside linebacker is huge here,'' said seventh-year veteran Steelers inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, between practices at Pittsburgh's training camp at scenic St. Vincent College. "You can make a name for yourself for a long time if you can get it done. And he [Jones] has a chance.''
Jones, the disruptive force who churned out a bevy of big plays at Georgia the past two seasons (24 sacks overall, a nation-leading 24.5 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles in 2012), has a chance all right. He has a chance, and some would say a great chance, to become the first Pittsburgh rookie to start at outside linebacker since Ham began his Hall of Fame career by doing so in 1971. It's not the Steelers way to anoint any rookie, so Jones still has to score a clear-cut victory in his preseason battle with fourth-year veteran James Worilds for the right to replace the departed and well-decorated Harrison at right outside linebacker.
But keep in mind the reality of Jones' lofty draft slot, and the fact the Steelers have shown no apparent interest in talking contract extension with Worilds, who is entering the final season of his rookie deal. Pittsburgh has been patient with Worilds, a second-round pick out of Virginia Tech in 2010, but he has totaled just 10 sacks in his three NFL seasons, and has yet to prove he can cut it full-time at rush linebacker, the glamor spot of the Dick LeBeau-coached Steelers defense.
Jones, meanwhile, is off to an impressive start in his first Steelers camp, showing good instincts and feel for the game, doing a fair J.J. Watt impersonation with several batted down passes, and flashing the speed, athleticism and strength it takes to collapse the pocket and stand out in pass rush drills. The day I visited Steelers camp, Jones was particularly impressive in the "backs on backers'' drill, where linebackers take turns blitzing a quarterback, while a stationary running back or tight end is tasked with blitz pickup duties. Jones won almost all of his battles, earning some notice from both teammates and coaches.
"He's very explosive and has a nice motor on him,'' Timmons said. "The guy has it all. He's a very sharp kid, and if he can pull it together, I'm sure he's going to be where he wants to be.''
Initially, when the draft scouting season opened, the Steelers never dreamed Jones would be where he is now, wearing black and gold and working to earn a spot in their lineup. Pittsburgh didn't even burn one of its 60 scouting combine interviews on Jones, figuring it would be a waste of time since Jones would come off the board long before No. 17.
But a diagnosis of cervical spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal column in his neck) that Jones received in 2009 while playing for Southern Cal -- he later transferred to Georgia after USC would not allow him to play -- re-emerged as an issue this spring and impacted his draft stock. When Jones also posted a relatively "slow'' 40 time at his pro day (in the 4.9 range), the two-time All-America pick was suddenly in play in the teens of the first round.
The Steelers were convinced they had themselves a steal. Unable to get Harrison, 35, to agree to a reduced salary cap figure after an injury-shortened season in 2012, Pittsburgh released its top pass rusher and went shopping for a younger, healthier and cheaper replacement. Of the multiple issues that combined to render the Steelers an 8-8 non-playoff qualifier last season, the mediocre pass rush (just 37 sacks, tied for 15th most overall) was fairly glaring. As recently as 2010, the Steelers led the league with 48 sacks. So Pittsburgh clearly craves the style of mayhem Jones was known for creating in college.
"There's nothing better that I could imagine than getting this opportunity to play here, and be coached by [Dick] LeBeau, who's in the Hall of Fame and knows what it takes to be great,'' Jones said. "He knows what a great outside linebacker looks like, and he's coached some of the best. Being a rookie, I'm just sitting back, asking a lot of questions and trying to absorb it all and add to my game.''
The Steelers say the best thing about Jones' game is that it might be ready-made for the NFL. Pittsburgh has had a habit over the years of drafting undersized 4-3 defensive ends and transforming them into outside linebackers in the 3-4 formation it has so successfully fielded since 1982. But those transitions always took time, as the Steelers drained the players' defensive end instincts and taught them how to think, move and react in space, as outside linebackers must do.
No such learning curve is needed for Jones, who played 3-4 rush linebacker at Georgia. His coverage responsibilities for the Bulldogs weren't extensive, but dropping isn't a new skill he must master, and that key distinction should enable him to start making an impact early.
"The difference between him and some others that we've acquired since I've been here is we're asking him to do a job that we saw him do in college,'' Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "He's not a convert, and I think there's an advantage from that perspective. There's going to be more young men you can say that about moving forward, because of the evolution of the 3-4 defense in college football.
"This is really the first one that I've personally had a chance to deal with, and you see the background being an advantage for him, having played on two feet in college. Just in him having an outside linebacker's perspective on the game, as opposed to playing with your hand in the dirt.''
Jones, too, believes being a "pure'' linebacker in college will hasten his transition to the Steelers' starting lineup, but after having doubt cast on his football career by the stenosis diagnosis, he is taking nothing for granted. He knows Worilds, who is only 25 and playing for his next contract somewhere, will not just step aside and make way for his ascent.
"I've got to earn this, and that's how it's supposed to be, absolutely,'' Jones said. "It doesn't matter where you were drafted to a certain extent. I'm just working and waiting for my opportunity, taking the humble approach, and be ready when my opportunity comes.
"Our linebackers as a whole, we're going to get after it. We've got playmakers and the linebackers always lead this defense. Over the history of this Steelers defense, it's been near the top for many years. I know the names. It's an honor, truly an honor to play this position for this team and I want to take on that challenge.''
Rest assured, the challenge of being the Steelers' Next Big Thing at outside linebacker will be issued to Jones. If not at the very start of his rookie season, then soon enough. In Pittsburgh, where the past is so revered and ever-present, Steelers fans are eager to embrace Jones as the future.