Have to Question Draft Maneuvers

Why are they courting Le'Veon Bell and not Johnathan Franklin? After watching more failed draft picks depart Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell feels Steelers' moves are open to criticism.

The Steelers flew Rooney Air Express into East Lansing, Michigan, on Tuesday night and Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Kirby Wilson and James Daniel sat down to dine with Michigan State prospects Le'Veon Bell and Dion Sims the night before they worked out.

The move struck me as a bit extravagant for a running back I had compared in notes during the season to former Buc James Wilder and current Bengal BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and a tight end who I felt had a better opportunity in the NFL if he just kept eating and moved over a bit to play tackle.

I did think enough of Bell's ability to talk to him at the combine, and must report that I came away underwhelmed.

In Bell's defense, it was a quick conversation. I was in the middle of an interesting mob interview with the learned Stepfan Taylor of Stanford. An announcement was made that Bell was over at another table, so I galloped over to beat the crowd and ask Bell if he had received any interest from the Steelers.

"What what?" he said, before responding that, no, he hadn't heard from the Steelers.

It wasn't the hipster-like initial reaction that bothered me as much as it was the look in his eyes: There didn't seem to one.

I used to laugh at Bill Cowher for talking about "the look in someone's eyes." That's a stupid way to judge someone in 15 seconds. But here I am, judging Bell as, um, a bit shallow upstairs. And, really, in that type of setting that's all it takes for me to cross someone off my list.

Oh, and the fact that he told me the Steelers weren't interested played a bit part, too.

So I went back to finish talking to Taylor and hadn't thought about Bell again, until this week when the Steelers made him a centerpiece attraction in their fan nation.

Hey, I could be completely wrong about Bell, and would normally just acquiesce to the Steelers' better judgment. But why?

As I watch the moody Rashard Mendenhall leave for Arizona, and the re-signing of Larry Foote because Lawrence Timmons can't be trusted to call the defenses, and the far-less-than-clutch Mike Wallace leave for Miami, and the … well, you get the picture.

The guys Rooney Air Express have been making such a big fuss over with these Pro Day extravaganzas since Tomlin came on board in 2007 don't exactly inspire me to be confident in their decisions these days.

And that's why I want to know this: Why in Hell weren't the Steelers flying out to Los Angeles to talk to Johnathan Franklin on that day, the day of the UCLA pro day?

Wow. It felt good to shake that out of my system.

Anyway, Franklin impressed me at the combine. Heck, he impressed me during the season. Not that he's built like Bell, in the big-back tradition the Steelers seem to embrace, but Franklin is 5 feet 10, 205 pounds of thumping heart. And isn't THAT what we've come to expect the Steelers to embrace? Where has THAT kind of ballplayer been lately?

Let me just present the interview I had with the UCLA running back at the combine. Parts of it have been picked up and spun around the web, so you might already have a sense of Franklin. But here's the raw transcript:

Q. I saw a stat that you led nation in most yardage after contact. Could that possibly be true?

JF. I think so. If you tell me it is I'll take it (chuckles).

Q. How did you do that at your size?

JF. Just hard work. Thank God for allowing me to be able to achieve that. It's all about heart in this game. Running backs come in all sizes and shapes. It's really not about how big you are or how tall you are, it's just about how big your heart is.

Q. I watched you in 2011 and you were so much better in 2012. Did you feel that? And if so, why?

JF. Oh, yes. Just working harder, and just spiritually I was on another level, more at peace. Just my commitment to God allowed me to work harder and want to be better.

Q. What turned it around?

JF. Last year, last spring, I accepted Christ and my life just totally changed ever since then. I was just more at peace. It was amazing, when I did that, the kind of people who came into my life and pushed me to be great, on the field and off the field.

Q. Did someone push you in that direction?

JF. Yes, sir, a janitor on campus led me to accepting Christ. Just through prayer, and guys on my team who normally I would never talk to or have a relationship with came into my life and pushed me to maximize my potential.

Q. The janitor?

JF. Yes, sir. Me and him, we have the same bank on campus, the University Credit Union. I used to always see him pass by and he knew me because I was a football player on campus and he used to call me Frankie. ‘Hey, Frankie. Hey, Frankie.' So one day he asked for my number and I don't know why I gave a janitor my number but I gave it to him. He asked me to meet up with him and he started talking about Jesus Christ one day. I always knew about Jesus but I never really understood it all. So he said to me when we were sitting down, ‘I know you've got the Holy Spirit in you because if you didn't you wouldn't understand what I'm saying.' So he started talking to me about it and I was actually interested. After three times and a couple of weeks he invited me to Bible study. The pastor that night was talking about the world and how people try to look toward things to satisfy them, like fame or football or money or girls or partying, and he told me ‘The only thing that will really satisfy you is Jesus Christ and the only thing that will give you peace is Jesus.' I accepted Christ that day and my life has been different ever since, the way I carry myself, the things that I say, the thoughts, how I control my thoughts, how much I want to work to be a light to the world, to tell them how good God is. Just this whole season has reflected that, what God can do.

Q. But don't you miss the money and the girls and the partying?

JF. No. No. It's not even worth it.

OK, so there's a little more religion there than most football fans like in their sportswriting. And born-again Christians are by no means the key to a championship locker room. But the kid impressed me with his words, his intelligence, and "the look in his eyes."

The tape says the kid can play. The stats say the kid can play. Of course, Franklin, who'll turn 24 in October, is only 5-10, 205 and ran his combine 40 in 4.49.

Bell, who just turned 21, is bigger at 6-1.3, 230 and ran his combine 40 in 4.6. He lifted more weight, jumped more broadly (same vertical), and had a better time in the agility-testing short shuttle.

Bell is the better physical specimen, and frankly it would take Tomlin only five minutes to learn that Franklin's an outstanding and virtuous young man who would shine in any locker room. So perhaps sitting down with Bell and getting past the "what whats" was the intelligent, patient and wise thing to do.

But you can't blame me for having my doubts these days. The Steelers' recent drafts haven't caused me to think otherwise.


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