Release of LaMarr Woodley Puts Steelers' Draft Focus on a Pass Rush

Curt Popejoy@@nfldraftboardContributor IMarch 11, 2014

Pittsburgh Steelers' LaMarr Woodley is introduced before an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Steelers made some noise Monday with the announcement that they have designated linebacker LaMarr Woodley a June 1 cut. Gerry Dulac put out this tweet reporting the news:

Being a June 1 designation means that while Woodley can sign with any team once free agency begins, the cap savings will not kick in until after June 1. It is a trade-off, but with Pittsburgh's ability to hit the late releases for talent, that cap space will not go to waste.

On the surface, it appears as if the Steelers are cutting off their nose to spite their face. Woodley appeared to be one of the best players on the team's defense. However, as Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review pointed out, looks can be deceiving:

General Manager Kevin Colbert and the rest of the organization's front office have always tried to be loyal to their veterans, but at some point enough is enough. The emergence of Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones made the combination of diminishing production and exorbitant salary too much to take.

However, letting Woodley leave means there is a significant spot open at outside linebacker. Even in the best-case scenario, where Jones beefs up and is ready for an expanded role, the Steelers will still need that third outside linebacker to be effective. 

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 10: LaMarr Woodley #56 of the Pittsburgh Steelers stretches to tackle Fred Jackson #22 of the Buffalo Bills during the second quarter at Heinz Field on November 10, 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Vincent Pugliese/Get
Vincent Pugliese/Getty Images

But where to do they find them? Not in free agency, that's for sure. The best free-agent linebacker on the market was Worilds, and he has been secured for at least one more season. However, it's Worilds' contract situation that also makes finding another pass-rusher a top priority. If the Steelers cannot secure Worilds with a new contract, he could walk in 2015, leaving an even bigger void.

No, ladies and gentlemen, with this latest news the Steelers must now focus their attention toward the pass-rushing linebacker prospects in this draft. Here is a look at some prospects that most might not have been thought of as 3-4 outside linebackers, but should.


James Gayle, Virginia Tech

The Steelers are in the market for a player who can play that right outside linebacker spot. This guy is going to be assigned to rushing over the opposing team's best blocker. That means whether it is a run or a pass, strength at the point of attack is key.

Virginia Tech defensive end James Gayle really fits the bill. At 6'3" and 259 pounds, Gayle is physically ready to come in and contribute right away. Gayle is an exceptional edge-rusher with an explosive first step and very good speed.

Gayle's game is pretty underrated by the public, but he has the look of a player the league is going to draft much sooner than many might realize. If the Steelers want to roll the dice on Gayle and his elite athleticism and pass-rush skills, they would likely have to draft him with their second-round pick.


Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas

Maybe the Steelers don't view the need for a pass-rush linebacker as a second-round priority. Moving to the third round and their likely compensatory pick, they still have plenty of options. The top of that list is Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat. Jeffcoat is a pass-rush specialist for the Longhorns and a fascinating prospect.

The strength of Jeffcoat's game is less about long speed and more about an elite first step and a great understanding of balance and leverage.

Jeffcoat came on strong at the end of 2013, finishing with six sacks in Texas' final three games. If he can get a little stronger at the point of attack, he could become a very complete outside linebacker. But for now, Jeffcoat's ability to explode off the edge would be more than enough to warrant a third-round pick.


Aaron Lynch, USF

Moving a little later in the draft, the Steelers might want to roll the dice on a player who is more upside than production. USF defensive end Aaron Lynch entered 2013 with so much promise. However, the promise never materialized on the field. Yes, Lynch had some flashy plays, but he could never put it all together.

Obviously, compared to Gayle and Jeffcoat, the risk of Lynch is much higher. Nevertheless, if he can be had two rounds later, the potential reward more than makes up for it.

Lynch has worked hard to trim down and become a more dynamic player. This has come at the expense of some power at the point of attack. However, that's not why the Steelers would be bringing him in.

Overall, any of these players would be welcome on the Steelers. They all have parts of their game that fit very well with what the Steelers would expect of them. None of these prospects would cost the Steelers a first-round pick, but with Woodley out, there must be a renewed focus on finding his replacement.