Steelers Walked A Fine Line In Draft

The Pittsburgh Steelers filled their needs, and they did so by drafting some athletes with high ceilings.

The legend that must be written on tablets somewhere says NFL teams must draft the best available athlete.

The cynic who covers the NFL believes teams only talk about best available athlete but instead fill needs out of self-preservation.

The reality is that teams try to walk the fine line between doing both, and I don't know how anyone could've walked that fine line better this draft than the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Of course, if you ask me, I'm going to be partial to the team I cover. In fact, there's evidence that we reporters do that very thing.

"NFL Nation had their team reporters give thumbs up or thumbs down on their draft classes. 28 gave thumbs up," tweeted one draft expert, who concluded that "Draft week is a hell of a drug."

OK. I get that.

But there's also this: Reporters who critique the draft of the teams they cover know that team's true needs, unlike many in the national media.

Take Evan Silva's critique of the Steelers' draft. The Rotoworld fantasy savant gave the Steelers a D grade, tying them with the Arizona Cardinals for worst in the NFL. Among Silva's reasons were that Sammie Coates was "purely a luxury pick behind Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton."

Really? Should they use Darrius Heyward-Bey when one of those three players is injured?

"The Steelers needed a lot more from this draft," Silva continued, "particularly in terms of pass rush, safety help, and perimeter cornerback play."

Well, they drafted pass-rushers in the first and sixth rounds, cornerbacks in the second and fourth, and did not need a safety, even though, yes, Troy Polamalu has retired.

"They also missed out on known-target Maxx Williams," Silva concluded, seemingly oblivious to GM Kevin Colbert's denial of any such desire to move up and draft the tight end in the second round.

Colbert doesn't lie, particularly when leading off a press conference with an unsolicited rant.

I'm just trying to make the point that while I am more apt to support a successful franchise's draft haul, I'll be more accurate than the typical national expert who really doesn't know the depth chart or the people involved.

So, with that preface out of the way, here's my pick-by-pick analysis of the Steelers' draft:

* Bud Dupree, OLB, Kentucky -- Going way back to the molding of one of the great defenses of all time, the Chicago Bears drafted linebacker Otis Wilson with the 19th pick of the 1980 draft. He was a bit stiff, and they said he didn't make as many plays as his Greek god of a body said he should, and that it would take him too long to understand a complex scheme. Wilson was out of Kentucky (Louisville), after all. And they were right. For the first four seasons of his career, Wilson averaged 1.1 sacks per season. And then it all clicked. The talent level around him increased and Wilson became a ferocious intimidator and led one of the greatest defenses ever with 10.5 sacks during a Super Bowl run. He was the kind of physical specimen who could knock out a crack-backing wide receiver without moving his feet or turning his head. He just put up a forearm up and knocked Louis Lipps out cold. What a great piece of the defensive puzzle Otis "My Man" turned out to be. I think of him when I think of Bud Dupree.

* Senquez Golson, CB, Ole Miss -- My wish list for the second day of the draft had the 5-8 5/8, 176-pound Golson ranked fourth overall and first at the much-needed cornerback position. I tweeted that Golson was my favorite corner, but that the Steelers wouldn't be so brave as to draft a short corner then. So a more realistic prediction for that round, I wrote, was Doran Grant. Imagine my obnoxious behavior in the media room when the Steelers eventually drafted both players. But Golson, for one, is seemingly the most questionable pick to Steelers fans. I watched and admired Golson all season, and when I talked to him at the Combine I got a Deshea Townsend vibe -- Deshea after he matured into an effervescent team leader. But I want to use another comparison for those who criticize small cornerbacks: Antoine Winfield. At the 1999 combine, Winfield measured 5-8, 176, the same weight as Golson but half an inch shorter. The Buffalo Bills drafted Winfield 23rd in 1999 and he went on to average 14 starts for 14 seasons and was named to three Pro Bowls. He also played for defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin with the Minnesota Vikings in 2006 and had career highs of four interceptions and 14 passes defensed that season. It's possible that Golson can prove to be just as durable as Winfield, and will likely intercept more passes, since he's more of the ballhawk than the pit bull that was Winfield.

* Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn -- While we're doing this player comparison thing, go ahead and Google the names Sammie Coates and Terrell Owens. You'll find draft experts making that comparison, but the comparison came to me while watching Coates during his miked-up Senior Bowl week. The guy wouldn't shut up about getting the ball, wanting the ball, what he could do for his team with the ball. I swore I was watching a young Owens, and really wanted no part of Coates. But the skillset is most definitely similar to Owens as well. Owens wasn't invited to the Combine in 1996, but at his pro day was said to have run a 4.5 and then a 4.41-4.42 on a second attempt, and he supposedly kept running and busted open a gate that had been locked with a chain. He was listed at 6-3, 225 and was drafted with the 89th pick. Coates measures 6-1 3/8, 212 and ran a 4.43 40 at the Combine. He was drafted with the 87th pick. I've since read about Coates, and interviewed him after the draft, and have lost that diva vibe I felt for him earlier. I also remember Owens not having the greatest hands, either, just the power, speed and explosiveness that led to a long and distinguished career. I feel Coates has the same capability because I remember him more for his presence at Auburn than I do the drops which have most fans criticizing a pick that could very well turn out to be a grand slam homer.

* Doran Grant, CB, Ohio State -- His 5-10 1/4, 200-pound physique is more in line with past Steelers cornerbacks, and Grant does come with a reputation for being an outstanding tackler. As I watched him last season I wondered when he would get scorched because I never really saw much speed, or "twitch," in his game. But the scorchings never came. And I watched all the way through the two playoff games and Grant repeatedly held his own. After Grant was drafted, I asked him if he could keep up with his cousin and former Ohio State teammate Devin Smith if the blazing Smith had to run under one of Cardale Jones' 70-yard lasers. "I picked it off a couple times in practice," Grant said with a laugh. "So, yes, I can."

* Jesse James, TE, Penn State -- Colbert said the 6-7, 261-pound James was "one of the few guys who ... could block a defensive end." As a receiver, James isn't fast or elusive, but will catch the ball and run with it. Scout.com's Dave-Te' Thomas cited that power as the reason James reminds him of former New York Giants great Mark Bavaro, "for his drive-through-the-pack mentality," wrote Thomas. "He runs hard and gets most of his yardage after contact. He just doesn’t appear to have any elusiveness, but is a load to bring down in one-on-one situations." James is only 20 years old, so he's not even close to being a full-grown man yet.

* L.T. Walton, DE, Central Michigan -- The Steelers had an opening on their depth chart for a No. 4 end, someone to challenge No. 3 Cam Thomas for playing time. It was considered a deep draft for defensive tackles, and that's how the Steelers played it. They used a late pick on a 6-5, 319-pounder who DL coach John Mitchell likes and believes will develop into a solid player in time. I'm hearing from more and more people that Walton is an intriguing sleeper prospect.

* Anthony Chickillo, OLB, Miami -- A high-motored, enthusiastic defender who was buried inside of Miami's 3-4 defensive front, Chickillo (6-3, 267) showed his speed (4.79 40), strength (27 reps) and athleticism (34 1/2 vertical) at the East-West Shrine Game when moved outside to 4-3 end. The Steelers will move him one step further and use him as an outside linebacker "when we get him to a weight that's more manageable," said Colbert. It's possible Chickillo could become nothing more than the ultimate tweener, but that's how they felt about Mike Vrabel when they let him go to the New England Patriots. Of course, the Patriots found a place for a high-motored, enthusiastic defender who was buried in the wrong scheme.

* Gerod Holliman, FS, Louisville -- Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah, in his first mock draft of the year for NFL.com, gave Holliman to the Steelers in the first round. That's what 14 interceptions in one season will do for a player, even one who showed the aversion to tackling that Holliman had all season. But taking him in the seventh round was a good gamble. Perhaps he can intercept a few passes as a third-and-long dime back.

To top it off, the Steelers' signed three highly regarded centers and a left tackle in an attempt to add depth to the offensive line. So overall they filled their needs and added some potential super-men in Dupree and Coates, and maybe even James. Once again it appears the Steelers successfully walked that fine line.


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