The linebacking corps of the Pittsburgh Steelers is known as the best in the NFL. Over the years, there have been people like Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Kevin Green, Greg Lloyd, and the list goes on and on.
This year's group could be the best ever. How often is it that a team releases one of their starters and it is considered an upgrade?
James Harrison, OLB
In 2008, James Harrison became the first undrafted free agent to win the Defensive Player of the Year.
Drafted out of Kent State (the same college that Jack Lambert attended), Harrison did not have an immediate impact.
Harrison was signed as a rookie free agent in 2002. He spent 2002 and 2003 on the Steelers' practice squad.
In 2004, Harrison was signed by the Baltimore Ravens, and allocated to the Rhein Fire of the now defunct NFL Europe. After returning, he was released by the Ravens.
Harrison was ready to walk away from his NFL dream at the age of 26.
A freak weightlifting accident by Clark Haggans caused Bill Cowher to once again call Harrison, and Harrison decided to give it one more shot.
Harrison played mostly on special teams that year, but did play spot duty, recording one start when Joey Porter was ejected before a game against the Cleveland Browns.
In 2007, after the release of Joey Porter, Harrison filled his shoes. Harrison had 8.5 sacks, 98 tackles, and seven forced fumbles. Harrison was named team MVP.
During the 2008 season, Harrison etched his name in the Steelers' record book, recording a team record 16 sacks on his way to earning Defensive Player of the Year.
Harrison was rewarded this offseason with a six-year, $51 million contract, the second largest contract in Steelers' history (second to Ben Roethlisberger's eight years, $101 million).
James Farrior, ILB
James Farrior came to the Steelers as one of the few free agents that the Steelers sign from other teams.
He's originally a first round draft pick of the New York Jets in 1997 (eighth overall) out of the University of Virginia.
Farrior immediately became a starter, and has led the team in tackles almost every year.
He was rewarded in August 2008 with a new contract that will pay him $18.25 million over five years.
Lawrence Timmons, ILB
He was drafted in the first round (15 overall) out of Florida State University. Until this upcoming season, Timmons was the backup at all four of the linebacker spots.
He also played in the Nickel and Dime formations because of his speed and coverage ability.
Larry Foote realized that Timmons was going to be taking his starting job this year, so he asked for and was granted his release.
LaMarr Woodley, OLB
Woodley's 2008 season is what many people would call his breakout year. Teaming with James Harrison, Woodley set a Steelers record for 27.5 sacks between them, the most in Steelers' history.
Woodley is also the only player in NFL history to amass two sacks per game in his first four playoff games.
In Mike Tomlin's first draft, his first two selections were Timmons and Woodley. That could go down as the Steelers' best draft class in the last 20 years.
Keyaron Fox, ILB
Fox came to the Steelers as a free agent from the Kansas City Chiefs. He plays mostly on special teams, and is expected to be the primary backup this year to Farrior and Timmons.
Andre Frazier, OLB
He has spent a couple years on the practice squad, and has also played on special teams.
Frazier Patrick Bailey, OLB
Bailey comes to the Steelers as an undrafted free agent out of Duke.
Bruce Davis, OLB
He played defensive end at UCLA, and spent last year learning the new position.
Arnold Harrison, OLB
Arnold is in his fifth year; he spent the first two on the Steelers' practice squad.
Tom Korte, LB
He's an undrafted rookie free agent. He will be in the practice squad if he even makes it that far.
Donovan Woods, LB
He was signed prior to 2008 as a rookie free agent out of Oklahoma St. He played safety and quarterback in college, and spent last year on the practice squad, while trying to switch positions.
Our starters, as always, are set. All four of them have the potential to be in the Pro Bowl this year.
James Harrison is 31 years old, but did not really receive much playing time until two years ago; he has the wear and tear of a 27-year-old.
Timmons is 23 years old, and is just stepping into his own on the football field. Look for him to become a monster now that he is the starter.
LaMarr Woodley is another beast on the rise. He plays the best in the big game, and is the perfect complement to Harrison on the other side.
James Farrior is really the only question mark going forward. He is 34 and only has another year or two before his skills start diminishing.
I look for Bruce Davis or Keyaron Fox to be the one to take over when Farrior is ready to step down. But they are going to have to earn it.
In the Steelers' system, they mold young men into the mold of a Steelers' linebacker. It happened to Harrison, and it happened to Timmons.
Now it's time to mold the next great player.
Who will it be?