It didn’t take long for Ryan Shazier, the No. 15 overall pick of last month’s draft, to earn a starting role with his new team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Shazier has been seen lining up with the Steelers’ first unit during OTA practice sessions. But just because he’s already been handed a starting spot, doesn’t mean he can’t have it taken away. His rookie training camp and preseason will be vital to his prospects of solidifying himself as a starting-caliber linebacker who can become the instant difference-maker Pittsburgh’s defense is in need of.
Shazier’s sub-4.40 speed is what obviously enamored the Steelers in the pre-draft process. His range and ability to explode through gaps could make him a disruptive force at the next level. With the aptitude to rush the quarterback, drop back into coverage and fly sideline to sideline as quickly as a defensive back, Shazier has all the tools to excel as a rookie. Overcoming some of his deficiencies will be in order, though.
Despite his phenomenal closing speed, Shazier is a bit undersized and struggles to diagnose plays in a timely fashion on occasion. His small frame for the position could impede his ability to shed blocks against NFL offensive linemen. Becoming a liability against the run, which Shazier was on occasion at the collegiate level, could lead to more of a situational role early on.
With more natural instincts, Shazier would possess the ability to overcome what he lacks in size and strength by beating opponents to the point of attack. It’s not easy for a 300-plus pound lineman to fire up out of stance and into the second level in time to block an athlete of Shazier’s caliber. Unfortunately, his film at Ohio State revealed a player who was often hesitant when reacting to the play.
Getting stronger and acquiring more awareness should be priorities for Shazier, but even if he’s unable to make strides in either area, he’s talented enough to make a difference for the Steelers; if not immediately, definitely in the near future.
The padded practices and obviously the exhibition contests will be crucial to Shazier in his bid to earn the coaches’ trust before Week 1. He’s likely going to shine in many non-contact sessions. His athleticism and speed will be put on full display in touch football.
But when the pads come on, Shazier must exemplify the physicality needed to hold up against the run. The Steelers already weren’t very good against the run, ranking 21st in 2013, so any detrimental play by Shazier will be a difficult hurdle to overcome.
Last year’s starter next to Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, may be a fallback option at weak-side inside linebacker for the Steelers in the event Shazier is outmatched. If he’s able to resemble something closer to his ceiling than his floor, however, Shazier should begin to validate himself as a rookie starter at next month’s camp
Cody Strahm is an NFL Senior Writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.