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A look back at the weekend that was, Part IV, by a reporter covering the Pittsburgh Steelers

SCI.net publisher Jim Wexell looks back on the moments that defined the Steelers' draft weekend. Here's a look at Rounds 4-7:

This series has stretched out longer than I had expected. A simple highlights story turned into a week-long series, and frankly I could take it through the weekend because Day 3 was so much fun.

Normally, there's so much tape from Draft Weekend that I rarely go back through it, and instead rely on the transcripts that are so appreciated. But there's so much nuance, and fun, and laughter on the tape, and going back through it made me appreciate even more the bond between those of us who cover every minute of the draft and the coaches who parade through the room.

So, anyway, here are the very best highlights from Day 3, which I started with this tweet:

https://twitter.com/jimwexell/status/726459136297279488

ROUND FOUR

The Steelers only had two offensive tackles among their 30-some pre-draft visitors, and the position really wasn't a crying need, but I thought one was destined for the middle rounds because a quality coach such as Mike Munchak deserves more than one draft pick in three years with the team. It's only smart to make use of such a resource, and the Steelers did with Jerald Hawkins.

I had figured Caleb Benenoch would be the man because he moved better, but the Steelers like the physicality of Hawkins, who blocked for Leonard Fournette down at LSU in the SEC.

No one asked about Fournette, the star back who'll be a top 10 pick next draft. And, really, the only highlight I want to pluck from Munchak's talk to the media is this one:

"I’m just real excited to be in the room here to talk about an offensive lineman that we just drafted."

Yeah, no big deal, but it's so smart to be appreciative. Assistant coaches don't want to appear on TV; they just want fresh talent. But once assistants are exposed, all questions about the position group become fair play, like who's going to open the spring at left tackle, Alejandro Villanueva or free-agent acquisition Ryan Harris?

"Obviously Al's the one that’s most familiar with the position coming in," Munchak said. "That's not going to mean a whole lot. Ryan's new to the offense. He just got a Super Bowl ring so he brings a lot of experience to the room also. So, we've got a lot of good problems to have."

ROUND SIX

Without fifth or sixth-round picks, the Steelers had to wait until their compensatory pick in the sixth to select OLB Travis Feeney of Washington with the 220th pick.

Seventeen years earlier, when Feeney's new position coach, Joey Porter, was drafted, 15 of the 32 compensatory picks were awarded in the seventh round. This year, none of the 33 comp picks were awarded in the seventh round, because teams have learned to "game the system." The 220th pick in 1999 was the 14th pick of the seventh round.

It just caused everyone to wonder how Feeney, a 6-3 5/8, 230-pound edge rusher with a 4.5 Combine 40, a 40-inch vertical jump and a 10-10 broad jump, could become virtually, a mid-seventh-round pick?

Was it the 4.42 short shuttle time? Was Feeney stiff laterally?

"No, he's actually really athletic," said Porter. "I kind of got out of that comparing shuttle times to 40 times. I just kind of look at his body movement, how he moves on the football field, what kind of demeanor did he play with, and he checked off all the boxes. ... He plays real passionately, so I try to stay away from the comparison of this and that. I’m not going to ask him to do no shuttles on the football field."

A few in the media have compared Feeney to a young Porter, who was drafted 73rd (third round) in 1999. Porter came out 6-2, 240 with a 4.68 Combine 40 time. The Steelers thought he played much faster on tape, so they timed him again at a personal workout and got a 4.50 "on grass that looked like it needed a baler," said the college scouting coordinator, the late Max McCartney. "It did. It looked like my backyard."

Anyone who works the draft in the lush Pittsburgh growing season can appreciate the "backyard" comment.

When Porter was drafted, he excitedly talked about coming to Pittsburgh and joining the linebacking tradition, which he ticked off by name for the media on his conference call. Feeney was similarly excited because his father had moved to California from Pennsylvania.

Where in Pennsylvania, Travis?

"Hey, Pop! Hey, Pop!" Feeney yelled as he turned away from the phone. "Dad! Dad, I'm calling you, dude! Where are you from in Pennsylvania?"

We could hear dad answer "Pittsburgh" and then more specifically "Brownsville."

"He's from Brownsville, Pennsylvania," Feeney reported. "Sorry. I wanted to make sure I got that right."

Feeney was probably just happy to be drafted by anyone at that point. Perhaps he was drafted so late because of a reported four shoulder surgeries (two on each labrum). That issue wasn't addressed by us on draft day. At the time we were more interested in whether Feeney was a 3-4 edge rusher (at 230 pounds?) or another chess piece for the 4-2-5 nickel.

"I don’t want to do anything to hurt his wheels," Porter said of Feeney's playing weight. "I want him to be ready and playing the way he knows how to play, how he played at U-Dub. If he can make that transition and give us that same type of intensity, he’ll be just fine what he weighs."

Porter also said that Feeney would "do everything that we do with our regular outside linebackers. ... If we find out that he does something special, we'll find that special position to put him in."

Joey, how does the defensive staff view the draft so far?

"It’s looking very defensively," Porter said to much laughter.

SEVENTH ROUND

I can't remember if special teams coordinator Danny Smith had ever spoken to the media in a formal draft setting prior to this, but hopefully he gets to do it more often. Smith may have been the most entertaining coach of all.

He got his No. 1 punt returner, Demarcus Ayers, a 5-9 3/8, 182-pound receiver who ran a 4.72 40.

4.72? Isn't that kind of slow for a return specialist?

"This kid plays fast," said Smith. "If I showed you the tape that I put together on this kid, you wouldn’t think that matches up with the time he does. And to be honest with you, and I’m a little bit old-fashioned in a lot of ways ... but we wear about 15 pounds of pads, with helmets and shoulder pads and pants and girdles and thighs and knees and all that kind of stuff, and then we time these guys in track shoes and in their underwear. I don’t know where we went bad with that. If I had to do it, I’d time 'em in full pads.

"This kid plays faster than his 40 time. Maybe it’s his vision. Maybe it’s quicker decisions. I think if we took a lot of guys at 7-11, they would run fast, but if the cops are chasing 'em they would be a little faster. I think some of our players are like that.

"Now don’t make the insinuation that they’re all getting chased by the cops. I ain't saying that. I’m just saying in that environment when you have a defensive guy that's chasing these guys, or a punt team chasing these guys, they’re pretty quick. And this kid falls into that category."

Wasn't he a decorated kickoff returner, too?

"Ah, punt returns more so," Smith said.

What about Feeney? Will you use him? He was a pretty decorated special-teamer at Washington, wasn't he?

"You keep using the term 'decorated.' Who decorated these guys?" Smith said. "You read something in the media and they're all decorated. Ain't none of 'em decorated in this league. They ain't run down on a kick yet so they ain't done a damn thing. We’ll decorate him after he makes some tackles against the Washington Redskins on Monday night."

What about Eli Rogers? Is he in the competition at punt return?

"He is in the mix," Smith started, before gathering steam about last year's injured rookie. "Eli's in the building and Eli got a pair of Steelers shorts and he thinks he's a Steeler, but I have yet to see him in a game. So, he’s a suspect at this time."

And what about Antonio Brown? Will he remain in the competition back there?

"You're asking the wrong guy that question," Smith said before answering that question. "Last year, when we went with the Jacoby Jones experiment, at that particular time we made that decision to make that change. After that meeting, A.B. came to my office very distinctly and said, 'Danny, I don’t like it.' My honest comment back to him was, 'A.B., I don't like it, either, but that's what we're going to do.' And that's what we did. It didn’t work, and we went back to A.B.

"You can never have enough of these kinds of guys. You can never have enough of the punt returners. We're not ready to give this kid the position by no means. He's a seventh-round draft choice. But I think he's got an excellent skill level and he'll be competitive at the position."

Smith showed us his list of punt returners and pointed to Ayers at the top, and then explained how he put the list together.

"I look at their hands, their quickness. Do they muff? Are there fumbles? What’s their decision-making? What’s their vision? What’s their ability to avoid? Do they break tackles? Are they fearless? Are they tough? Will they outrun coverage? Do they have TD speed? Are they sideline returners? Are they middle returners? Can they make cuts at full speed? Are they a must-gather guy? Can they make the first guy miss? Do they only get what’s blocked? Do they have the ability to create? And I plus and minus all those qualities. Then, after I plus and minus those qualities, I reach a conclusion. That’s how I come up with the list and rate them. And this kid had more of those qualities as a punt returner than anybody else I evaluated."

POST-DRAFT

The 7B choice of the seventh round, Tyler Matakevich, the ILB from Temple with 493 career tackles, wasn't discussed because Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin always follow the final pick with their press conference.

The pair had appeared after the Artie Burns pick, so here are the quick-hitters about the others from Colbert:

Sean Davis also made 36 career special-teams tackles, but his initial task seems to be "to match-up on some of the bigger receivers and some of the bigger tight ends in some packages."

Javon Hargrave caught their attention at post-season all-star games. "Joe Greene happened to be in our meetings when we were doing defensive linemen this year. We asked Joe, 'You know, we're talking about a small college guy. What did guys like Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood, what did they have that gave them the opportunity to make it in the NFL with some of the guys who played at higher levels?' And Joe said, 'It wasn't their physical abilities because they had it, but they also had the confidence that they could compete with guys from bigger schools.' And we think Javon had that confidence."

* Hawkins "probably came out ahead of schedule, and that's OK. ... He's got tremendous upside and the ability to play left tackle."

* Feeney "is a very ferocious type of hitter. I mean, he's a run-and-hit guy. He can give you some pass rush off the edge and he had 22 special-teams tackles."

* Ayers "is more of a slot receiver and we liked him as really the best punt-return candidate in this draft."

* Matakevich "was the highest player left on our board. ... He's not the biggest, he's not the fastest, but he’s a heck of a football player and highly, highly productive."

The floor was open for questions and a few other tidbits emerged.

* On Hargrave's late arrival to the Senior Bowl as an injury replacement:

"I believe it was Thursday morning he came in," said Colbert. "His equipment hadn’t arrived yet and he was in a white helmet and he comes in with fresh legs and he was really having a productive practice. We didn’t even know who he was at that point, because he hadn’t been officially added to the roster. From that point forward, it was like this kid's a little different. He’s better than a 1-AA player. So I think the things that he does naturally would translate anywhere else."

* On Feeney, with his impressive measurables, being available so late:

"We had him graded higher than that," Colbert said. "We were just happy that he was there for us. It was a long time between that four and that six. A lot of good players went. Had we had the opportunity or picks, we probably would've taken him higher. So, (we were) very fortunate he was there. He’s exciting because he flies around and he puts his body in some reckless places, and does it without concern. And that’s very impressive. We interviewed him at the Combine. He’s kind of a happy-go-lucky smiler, talker, and then when you watch him play it's like he's a little different person."

"In a positive type way," Tomlin added with a chuckle.

* On whether James Harrison is coming back for one final season (he's since announced that he is):

"As far as I know," said Colbert. "Unless there’ve been some tweets from the desert that I haven’t gotten yet."

Added Tomlin: "He’s working out awful hard for a retired guy, isn’t he?"

* On the long wait between rounds four and six:

"We actually tried to trade back into the draft," Colbert said. "Before the start of the fourth round, we thought there were at least 50 guys who could make this team. And with those numbers, we wanted as many picks as we could get. We didn’t get it, and that’s fine. We just hope that we got the right guys with what we had."

Colbert said that because "we anticipate getting two or three comp picks" next year, they were trying to trade 2017 picks, but "I think everybody was hesitant to trade out of it."

* And, finally, on whether they were offered a chance to trade down in the first round:

"No," Colbert said. "Even if we were, we weren’t going to do it because we were going to take Artie Burns right then and there. Trading away from Artie Burns was never even an issue."


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