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Making the Leap, No. 18: Steelers LB Ryan Shazier

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For the third straight year, the Around The NFL crew will document the players we believe will be "Making the Leap" in 2015. This could be a player emerging from no-name status to a quality starter. Or it could mean an excellent player jumping to superstar status. 

Next on the list is Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier.

Why Shazier is on the list


It's 2015, not 1986. In today's increasingly pass-happy NFL, inside linebackers are demoted to special teamers if they can't cover monstrous tight ends moving like wide receivers and lightning-quick scatbacks running precise routes.

After finishing third nationally with 144 tackles and tying for second with 23.5 tackles for loss, Shazier blazed an unofficial 4.36 40-yard dash with a 42-inch vertical leap at Ohio State's pro day before the 2014 draft.

When Shazier was drafted a couple of months later, he became the fastest linebacker to arrive on the scene since a freakishly talented Brian Urlacher was converted to the position after starring as a safety, wide receiver and kick returner at New Mexico.

Legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau cited that "exceptional athletic ability" as the primary reason Shazier was thrust into the lineup, emerging as the Steelers' first rookie defensive starter since Kendrell Bell in 2001.

"The young man has no holes," coach Mike Tomlin said of Shazier after the draft. "... He's a defensive playmaker. Bigger than positional needs, what we needed was a defensive playmaker."

That assessment rang true when Shazier dominated the Bills in a spectacular preseason debut, picking off a pass with cat-like reflexes and recording 11 solo tackles in less than two quarters of action.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette labeled the performance one of the more impressive debuts in recent memory.

Tomlin was even more effusive in praise, as was Steelers LB Lawrence Timmons

"His pass coverage is awesome," Timmons raved at the time. "You saw the tackles; he was making tackles left and right. He has the pedigree. He has all the talent and the intangibles you want in an inside linebacker."

The Shazier hype reached its apogee after he authored his own personal highlight reel in the regular season opener, blasting Browns running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell behind the line of scrimmage, running down wide receivers from behind and nearly executing a diving interception over the middle.

Just when it appeared that Shazier would justify a summer's worth of breathless accolades, he was struck down by a severely sprained MCL in Week 3, effectively sabotaging his rookie season.

Obstacles


Shazier returned from the knee injury in late October, only to sustain an ankle sprain the next week. By the time he reappeared in Week 15, he was limited to special teams while relinquishing his starting job to Sean Spence and Vince Williams.

As an undersized linebacker/safety hybrid, Shazier must prove he can remain durable through a season's worth of collisions.

In drafting Shazier, the Steelers passed on the less dynamic but more powerful C.J. Mosley, who earned a Pro Bowl nod, garnered All Pro votes and was in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

To validate that decision and emerge from Mosley's AFC North shadow, Shazier will have to do a better job of putting himself in the right position and fighting through heavy traffic -- or play "a little cleaner in the pile," as inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky recently put it.

As you can see in the Week 1 highlight video above, Shazier's biggest plays occur when he blasts through the line of scrimmage unblocked.

Mosley wins his fair share of one-on-one battles with blockers. Can we say the same for Shazier?

2015 expectations


In an effort to answer that question in the affirmative, Shazier has bulked up to 233 pounds -- roughly 10 pounds more than his 2014 playing weight.

He has not only regained his starting job, but is also preparing for "all-case scenarios" because the coaching staff views him as an every-down linebacker capable of rushing the passer, excelling in coverage and tackling in the open field.

The LeBeau-era Steelers had an excellent track record of developing linebackers, as evidenced by the Pro Bowl trio of Timmons, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley over the past decade.

A key factor in that success has been long-time linebackers coach Keith Butler, who was recently elevated as LeBeau's successor in the defensive coordinator position.

Under Butler's guiding hand, Shazier has the potential to break out as the Steelers' latest defensive star. Even in an abbreviated rookie season, his playmaking ability jumps off the screen.

We fully expect Shazier to rack up more than 100 tackles and force a handful of turnovers if he stays out of the trainer's room this season. If he can reach those numbers without surrendering big plays to overpursuit, Pro Bowls will soon follow.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast discusses the Bills' QB situation, the Odell Beckham Jr. drama and unveils the Superstar Club. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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