Draft Grade: Incomplete

It's not that SCI's Jim Wexell is afraid to put a grade on the Steelers' draft, he just doesn't know how the two big risks are going to pay off.

Soon after Keith Butler was hired to coach linebackers for the Pittsburgh Steelers, I asked him about a just-drafted outside linebacker who had a vertical jump of 37 inches.

"There was a study done of different measurements by college strength coaches," said Butler. "And what correlated most to winning, per the top 25 teams in the country, was the vertical jump. It may mean something. Hopefully it does."

It did not. Second-round pick Alonzo Jackson played in only 9 games with the Steelers and did not have a sack. He was gone after two seasons.

Within the next seven years, Butler and the Steelers drafted two more outside linebackers in the second round:

* LaMarr Woodley had a vertical jump of 38½ inches and has 52 sacks in 6 regular seasons.

* Jason Worilds had a vertical jump of 38 inches and has 10 sacks in 3 seasons.

I didn't ask Butler this weekend whether he still subscribes to the theory of the vertical jump. Neither, probably, did Kevin Colbert or Mike Tomlin, who drafted Jarvis Jones and his lackluster 30½-inch vertical in the first round. Colbert and Tomlin just love the tape, the quick-twitch, and the short-area burst of one of the two players who hold the key to the Steelers' recent draft class.

But to me, it's not Jones' 40 time, his vertical jump, or even his production that matter, because if you remember Jackson had 13 sacks in his senior season. No, it's Jones' size that has me worried.

While Jackson and Woodley weighed 266 and Worilds weighed 254 coming out as defensive ends, Jones weighs 245 coming out as an outside linebacker, and he doesn't appear to have the frame to add much more.

Tomlin said the fact Jones has been playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme made the evaluation easier, less of a projection. But it has me nervous about the run defense.

Aren't the Steelers?

"We always worry about the run defense," Butler said. "I do."

It was pointed out to Butler that the team has lost, in back-to-back years, run-game pillars Aaron Smith and James Farrior, and now Casey Hampton and James Harrison.

"Aaron Smith was a big loss, in my opinion," Butler said. "We have to be able to fill that void and I think we will because there are a couple of young guys coming along. ... We have to get better at linebacker, too. Jason Worilds should be a lot better than he was last year. Everybody talks about Jarvis coming in and stuff like that, but we've never started a [rookie] linebacker since I've been here."

Only a fool believes this draft class will be determined by Jones' ability to start as a rookie. But only someone who's watched Dick LeBeau's defense closely over the years knows that Jones' ability to hold the point in the run game will be the better gauge of this draft class.

Yes, getting to the quarterback is large, but setting that sack up by making a pass predictable falls within the domain of the run defense.

That's why I just can't hand out a draft grade at this time. Jones is a small pass-rusher, and their fourth-round pick, strong safety Shamarko Thomas, is a tick below 5 feet 9 and already has a history of concussions.

They are small defenders, and so they are the keys – as unknown variables – to this draft. Le'Veon Bell was the first back chosen in a second round I had viewed as chock full of three-down "bell cows." And I figured that Markus Wheaton, the wide receiver with the sprinter's background, would go high in the second round, or maybe even find his way into the bottom of the first round.

So those two offensive skill players, and upside-soaked fifth-round cornerback Terry Hawthorne, are obvious pluses to me.

The backup quarterback? Well, midway through last season I had called Landry Jones the best of a bad lot at the position, and even wrote that he might be a steal in the third round because no one seemed to give a comparative whit about him. But then I watched Jones throw away a couple of big second-half games and play poorly in his bowl against a porous Texas A&M defense, and I lost interest altogether.

Either way, Jones is not the classic Steelers fifth-round QB pick with nothing but upside, nothing but height, mobility and a rocket arm, and nothing in the realm of accuracy. No, Jones appears to be more than that, so I'll lean to giving them a thumbs-up there.

In the sixth round, Penn State fans remember all of Justin Brown's drops but Oklahoma fans remember all of his catches. I'm not expecting much from Brown, and if he pans out, well, he's gravy.

Same with Vince Williams, who'll turn the lights out on running backs (and even pulling guards, if you watched the televised Senior Bowl practices), so I can't argue with drafting a healthy two-down run-stuffer over the guy I wanted, Michael Mauti, who's rehabbing his third ACL tear.

And in the seventh round, I never have a problem with DL coach John Mitchell getting a project like Nick Williams, particularly since he hails from Mitch's beloved home state of Alabama.

The guy I wanted in the seventh round anyway – San Diego State guard Nik Embernate (see the tape of him handling Ziggy Ansah) – was signed by the team after the draft, as was Utah WR Reggie Dunn, who averaged 51.3 yards per kickoff return last season.

Dunn only returned 10 kickoffs, so he didn't qualify for the NCAA KR title, but he does have 5 100-yard kickoff returns in his career. The 5-9.3, 178-pounder ran his pro-day 40s in 4.25 and 4.26.

So the Steelers plucked a couple of gems after the draft, and seem to have found some true offensive skill players during the draft.

The key, again, will be how the big risks pay off.

The Steelers hadn't drafted a 3-4 outside linebacker in the first round since Huey Richardson in 1991, and he was gone by 1992. And they hadn't traded away a future third-round pick since 1973, when they traded for veteran Tom Keating, and he was gone by 1974. In fact, when Chuck Noll couldn't use that third-round pick in the 1974 draft for John Stallworth, he said "Never again"

Well, as they say, never say never, because the Steelers just challenged both curses by drafting a couple of players who sure look great in their college tapes, but who are small enough to make anyone nervous about a run defense that's playing in a division which still thinks the run game is the key to winning Super Bowls.


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