'Force' Was At Work For Steelers

The Steelers have a Grade A draft haul, but will it be one for the history books? Jim Wexell breaks it down:

Someone wrote right before the draft, on the day the great scout Bill Nunn died, that the Pittsburgh Steelers had suffered "a loss in the force."

But I wondered whether it would work the other way. I wondered whether the Steelers had gained in "the force," and I wondered whether the 40th anniversary of the greatest draft of all time, by the Steelers or any team, was factoring into this equation in any way, shape, form, or at any level.

And then I went back to work and wrote my prediction column, which ended with the Steelers trading down for Darqueze Dennard.

Ryan Shazier's name was absent from that column, even though he was certainly a part of the conversation that spilled over into Twitter on draft night. As the Steelers' pick approached, with Dennard still on the board, I introduced Shazier this way:

"Two Tomlin types to keep an eye on: Ryan Shazier and Calvin Pryor. Run-and-hit types. I still trade down, maybe get Dennard late."

My next tweet, a minute or so later and right before the pick, wasn't even me. It was something else using my keyboard as I typed these words:

"Shazier did run a 4.38 40. Son of a pastor. Outstanding work ethic. Position of need. 21 years old. Medically clean. Lot to like."

Seriously, had I known all of that the previous day, I would've had a dandy prediction column.

And of course the team chose Shazier.

When you look back, how could it have been anyone else? Sometimes you don't see the forest for the gaping hole in the middle of the defense. Or the 21-year-old for the Alabama captain with a long list of medical concerns.

Shazier will eventually become the playmaking mack inside linebacker and force Lawrence Timmons to the buck, where, the Steelers hope, Timmons will take the next step as a playcaller.

The next great team weakness wasn't cornerback, either. It was defensive end, where the Steelers had lost their two top reserves, Al Woods and Ziggy Hood, and were apparently looking to replace starter Brett Keisel, whose contract was up at age 35. The Steelers did sign a backup nose tackle in free agency, and then said that 335-pound Cam Thomas would play defensive end.

Yes, that's how bad off the other hole was, and that's why I put Ra'shede Hageman and Stephon Tuitt at the top of Beast Board, Jr. on Day 2 of the draft.

I wasn't going to miss out on another obvious choice, but I had doubts whether either of those players would make it to the 14th pick of the second round. They were both late first-rounders in my book, so when another writer tweeted that he heard the Steelers liked defensive end Scott Crichton in the second round, I bit.

I liked Crichton's playmaking skills anyway, and figured he could add the weight to play the 5-tech position. I also felt I was getting another message from "the force," so I tweeted that the second pick had to be Crichton.

The Steelers chose Tuitt.

I heard a chuckle, but when I turned around I saw only journalists writing and tweeting and working in the media room.

But, yeah, I heard a chuckle all right.

So the Steelers filled their two biggest holes with talent befitting their turns in the draft. Shazier is 21 and Tuitt is 20. Both have impeccable personal and football character. Both should be building blocks for the next Steelers defense. For now, they're both being counted into sub-packages, and with good reason. Shazier will team with Timmons and Troy Polamalu to give the Steelers a speedy second level on pass downs, and Tuitt will give them bulk with pass-rush quickness in the middle of the four-man line.

Cornerback was the next need, but there wasn't one left on the Steelers' board after Phillip Gaines was taken at pick 87.

The Steelers weren't going to reach, so they turned to their need for a big WR -- and drafted a small running back.

"He's not small, he's short," Mike Tomlin said of 5-7 3/4 Dri Archer, and there's certainly a difference.

Small is a track athlete like Chris Rainey getting rammed into the upper reaches of the support stand by "Big Bertha," the massive, swinging bag at training camp. Short is Darren Sproles and Maurice Jones-Drew, who both stood less than 5-7 but were strong enough to withstand punishment.

Sproles weighed 187 and was picked 130th in 2005. Jones-Drew weighed 207 and was chosen 60th in 2006. Archer, an inch taller than each, weighs only 173 and was picked 97th. But Tomlin pointed out Archer's highly regarded strength by citing his 20 bench reps at the combine.

And of course there's the speed. Willie Parker was once timed at 4.23 seconds in the 40. He was electrifying at his first training camp and eventually became a Super Bowl hero. Well, one anonymous scout said he timed Archer in 4.16 seconds at the combine. The Steelers supported that by saying they clocked Archer at "sub 4.2." Or sub electrifying.

I have no doubt the Steelers made the right choice there. On my Twitter timeline prior to the pick I was calling for "those fast RBs," but I was focused more on Jerick McKinnon (picked 96th) and Lache Seastrunk.

But it's OK, I'll take Faster Than Willie Parker, particularly when the tall WR the Steelers had considered at pick 97, Martavis Bryant, was still available at 118.

I take it "the force" cares about the third day, too.

Bryant is tall and fast and specializes in catching the back-shoulder fade, which should help a team that lost 75 percent of its 20-and-in touchdown catches last season. Reportedly, there are concerns about Bryant's character and work ethic, but as a fourth-rounder who's looking more closely at the end of the roster than the start of it, he just might pull himself together. Of course, that's the risk of drafting in the fourth round -- unless you know something about John Stallworth that the rest of the league didn't.

Ahem.

Into the fifth the Steelers went, and I'm starting to think the nose tackle from Wisconsin, Beau Allen, who visited the Steelers before the draft, would provide some more symmetry with 1974. But, no, logic reigned in the name of Shaquille Richardson, a big cornerback from Arizona whom some felt was unjustly passed over by the combine. But DBs coach Carnell Lake knew Richardson from his days as a UCLA recruiter and figured it was time to patch another hole.

Of course, fifth-rounders fall for a reason, and so the story of the spring workouts won't be whether Richardson can add depth in the secondary, but whether Antwon Blake and Brice McCain can. Those were two castoffs the Steelers were able to sign within the last eight months.

"Antwon Blake is one, very fast, quick, aggressive corner that I liked coming out of last year," Lake said of the September 2 waiver claimee. "We got Brice McCain in the offseason, and I've been working with on the field the last couple of weeks. I'm really impressed with the way he moves. I think these guys are just getting started."

The Steelers also grabbed Wesley Johnson in the fifth round. He started 42 games at left tackle for Vanderbilt and will be given a year to add to his 6-5 1/2, 297-pound frame while learning the pro game from Mike Munchak. Johnson also started 7 games at center and 2 at left guard and could become the valued swing man that Kelvin Beachum was supposed to become before winning the left tackle job last season.

In the sixth round, the Steelers grabbed one of my favorite linebackers, Jordan Zumwalt, who played under former Bill Cowher assistant Lou Spanos at UCLA.

Zumwalt attracted my attention last season with a game-day enthusiasm that led to a taunting call after he had knocked out De'Anthony Thomas, and again during a bowl-game rocking of gargantuan QB Logan Thomas.

I sat down with Zumwalt at the combine and he impressed me with his leadership skills and intelligence. He was listed as an outside backer at UCLA, but is clearly -- like Shazier -- an inside backer in the Steelers' scheme and will compete with the rest of the question marks in sharpening up a weakness.

Then in the sixth round came the biggest man in the draft, 6-6 3/4, 352-pound Daniel McCullers, a defensive tackle at Tennessee. McCullers was the only defensive lineman at the combine with arms longer than 35 inches, and his are 36 5/8 inches long. He's a project, but DL coach John Mitchell wanted two linemen in this draft and McCullers joins Tuitt in fulfilling that wish.

In the seventh round, the Steelers ended the draft with a blocking tight end, Rob Blanchflower, and then added a couple of interesting free agents in DE Josh Mauro and OLB Howard Jones.

Mauro is a hungry 282-pounder who has already learned how to rise from the bottom of the depth chart at Stanford. And Jones is a long-armed pass-rusher with 4.61 speed who had 35 sacks at Shepherd University, a Division II school Jones had to attend as a "non-qualifier" out of high school. The scouting report reads that Jones "will require simple assignments." But just remember that they don't come any simpler than, "Howard, just rush the quarterback."

Of course, the 1974 draft ended with the signings of free agents Donnie Shell and Randy Grossman, two cherries on the top of that great haul of talent, so, will this draft match that one?

Of course not.

But "the force" was working behind the scenes in this one.

I have no doubt about that.


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