Long, Winding NFL Draft Road

From the notebook of a sportswriter who wonders what happened to that great progress Justin Brown had been making:

* You remember that sixth-round pick last year from Oklahoma/Penn State, the guy who was cut and signed to the practice squad. Well, he was supposedly making great progress -- according to an unnamed offensive coordinator -- and I assumed he would be given first crack at that No. 5 WR spot this off-season.

* Derek Moye was right with him, of course, but I assumed Brown was the greater talent and that Moye was a decent No. 6 in case of injury.

* So why sign Darrius Heyward-Bey?

* Sure, it's a minor quibble. The more the merrier, right? But as I see it now, the latest free-agent signee gives the Steelers this group of WRs: Antonio Brown, Lance Moore, Markus Wheaton, high draft pick from a rich crop of college prospects, Justin Brown, Heyward-Bey, Moye and another practice squad veteran, Kashif Moore.

* I know. The obvious response to that line of questioning is to scratch the high draft pick, or put more tamely, "now they're not forced to draft one early."

* BUT I WANT THEM TO.

* I want ownership to put that kind of heat on the front office so that the coach isn't left to choose the veteran with the dropsies over the guy they drafted last year in the sixth round whom we all questioned anyway.

* Ah, it's all too depressing. But maybe this comment made late last year by Indianapolis GM Ryan Grigson has something to do with Heyward-Bey: "His type of behavior is not real common these days. Regardless of the circumstances, a former seventh overall pick could have gone the opposite direction and acted like a diva, but that's not Darrius. He has handled everything with such high character, selflessness and grace. Whether it's helping the younger receivers with their assignments, running plays on card team, or making plays on special teams, he is doing whatever he can to help us win. He is a true example of what our head coach has preached from day one: all about the team, not self."

* Hey, Bey may be a find, but you can scratch off the opportunities of interesting street free-agents Danny Coale and Lanear Sampson.

* Don't mind me. I'm just grumbling.

* Used to be, the draft squabbles of March Madness gave way to the light at the end of the tunnel in early April. But there is no light coming out of this morass of draft talk that spins us in neverending circles.

* Remember when those who were against college football playoffs used to defend polling by saying that people liked to argue about the rankings? That's what the NFL's doing to us by moving the draft back to May 8.

* And nobody really likes to argue. Not even my wife.

* I can't say I used to enjoy "Path To The Draft" on NFL Network, but I faithfully watched it for column ideas and nuggets of draft info. But I turned it off way early last night, when, after the typical teasers promising features on Johnny Manziel, DeSean Jasckson and Jadeveon Clowney (n-o-o-o-o-o-o, not again), Charles Davis opened the show with that monster smile of his and asked Daniel Jeremiah if he knew how many days until the draft. "It's five weeks away from the big night!" Davis bellowed.

* C'mon. This is not Christmas. Or Easter. Or even Memorial Day weekend. Stop treating us like we're slobbering over something they could've gotten done on Feb. 5. Stop telling us this is a Super Bowl when it's not even an OTA workout.

* So, it made me turn the show off before it even began. Really, the last 30 seconds hold the only worthwhile nuggets anyway.

* While I'm here with Clowney and the PTTD show, how can Mike Mayock spend the last two months ripping (someone even said slandering) Clowney and then abruptly tell us how great the guy is while reporting from his pro day?

* OK, OK, enough complaining. Let's talk some football.

* Is Ryan Shazier a Mike Tomlin first-round curve ball?

* The thought came to me when I noticed the Steelers were releasing the names of draft visitors this week, but did not announce Shazier's visit last week. The conspiracy theorist in me began wondering if this linebacker, who strikes me as a 4-3 will backer, could be Tomlin's latest square peg in his 3-4 circle.

* Shazier is quick-twitch, no doubt, and he ran a 4.36 40 over Ohio State's fast track on his pro day. I do love Shazier's burst, but not his instincts.

* Then again, who wouldn't want a 4.36 40 in the middle of their defense?

* Some draft site should hire legendary horse racing handicapper Andrew Beyer to calculate the relative track biases around the scouting circuit.

* After completing and then analyzing the Scout.com publishers' mock draft last week, I think my three-round reality-based wish list is set in cement: CB Kyle Fuller-WR Davante Adams-ILB Telvin Smith.

* The third pick sparked not only outrage among Steelers fans but also some interesting debate, because Smith weighs only 218 pounds. Someone countered with this argument: "Even if Smith is every bit as good as (a 218-pound James) Farrior, the run defense is worse at every other spot in the front seven (with the possible exception of Cam Heyward) and probably every spot in the secondary, as well. Whoever is playing Farrior's spot is going to find the going much tougher."

* Not that it moved me off of Smith, but it did get me thinking about drafting a true run defender in the first round. But in that regard, the only prospect with whom I'd be comfortable is Darqueze Dennard, a cornerback who impressed me more with his physicality than his coverage.

* Dennard has the raw strength, no doubt. And after his field drills at the combine confirmed my belief that his lack of any kind of backpedal on film was the result of rusty hips, I didn't see him as a fit for a defense that plays so much zone, in part because of its desire to stop the run. But Dennard kept hanging around in my mind, and another poster on the message board hit the nail as to why:

"I saw Kevin Costner on NFL Network promoting what looks like to be a god awful movie. He was on to talk football. My initial thoughts were prejudice: 'What the hell does Kevin Costner know about football?' But then he said something so smart that I agree 110%. They asked him what he thought the Browns would do with their first pick. He said in any sport you win with guys that make you uncomfortable all game, that get under your skin and make you have to work hard all day. So then I thought "Damn, Ray Kinsella actually does know what he's talking about." But that's exactly what Dennard is. He's gonna make your life miserable for 60 minutes. And if he gets beat with poor technique, he's smart enough to take a 5-yard penalty. He plays fearlessly in the run game. He's a football player."

* Bingo.

* The same poster also offered this pearl: "At least with Dennard being drafted, I know there will be a shift in the soft cover 3 philosophy."

* On second consideration of my earlier conspiracy theory -- that the Steelers won't announce the names of visitors they want to draft -- their action probably has more to do with whether there are reporters in the building. That seems more logical.

* Jason Verrett was scheduled to visit Thursday and that wasn't announced. He's more of a second-round prospect anyway because he's short (5-9) and slightly built (189) with short arms (30 1/2). But, like Dennard, Verrett's a pit bull with great times (4.38/1.47, 6.69 3-cone), weights (19 reps), and measurements (39 vj, 10-8 bj).

* The former junior-college transfer to TCU, Verrett also learned early how to forget. In his first game he allowed 3 touchdown passes in a loss to Baylor. He was benched the following week and called home wanting to quit.

* He forgot about that disaster and went on to start 33 more games and finish as the co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. But we should remember Baylor that day attacked Verrett with future pros Robert Griffin III, Terrance Williams, Kendall Wright and Lanear Sampson.

* Yes, that Lanear Sampson.


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