JuJu Smith-Schuster and Brian Allen / LEE / USA TODAY Sports Images

Positive Take On Steelers' Draft

There may have been some bumps in the Steelers' draft road, but Jim Wexell came away excited to see the results.

This was going to be a column in praise of leadership.

Or how the Pittsburgh Steelers focused on drafting leadership, and character and work ethic and all of that good stuff.

It was to be juxtaposed against the backdrop of two slappy receivers already on the team involved in a silly fight on social media, which would've made it a potentially good column about a potentially good draft.

But then the long-snapper came along and ruined everything. 

Ruined the draft, but worse, ruined the column.

Oh, we all had our fun. Twitter was a blast for those of us who don't take late sixth-round picks too seriously. Even I mocked the Steelers for jumping ahead of 31 other NFL teams to draft a long-snapper in the sixth round because it was "not a deep year for long-snappers."

My daughter told me my remarks were funny, and you know how rare a compliment from a 17-year-old daughter can be.

Thing is, my sarcasm turned out to be truth. I learned after the seventh-round pick that the Steelers are very concerned about the durability of veteran long-snapper Greg Warren.

I was hoping Kevin Colbert would provide details in his post-draft wrap-up press conference, but when I asked if Warren is healthy, Colbert only said, "Right now? Yes."

OK, so Greg wasn't in a car accident, or suffering from a debilitating wrist injury. But the concern by the team is real.

But why the sixth round?

Well, the Steelers would be picking 30th in the seventh round. That would give any one of 29 teams that needed a long-snapper the chance to take one in the seventh, and that's when logic dictates a team should draft a sure-thing long-snapper. 

So, logic would therefore dictate that a team picking 30th in the sixth round should get the jump.

But was this long-snapper, Colin Holba, worthy of being drafted?

Yes, said the only analyst I could find willing to put his name to it. And NFL.com's Lance Zierlein is a respected analyst and son of the former Steelers O-line coach.

Here's how Colbert explained it:

"A lot of college snappers are these 6-1, 215-220 guys, which really would have a hard time snapping and blocking in our league. Colin is 6-3, 248 and has some coverage ability. Not many come along who are that size and are competent snappers."

It echoed what anonymous NFL personnel told the great draft writer Bob McGinn in last week's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. McGinn listed three long-snapping prospects along with quotes from scouts and coaches.

On Holba:

“He actually snapped and protected."

"Pretty consistent. Pretty good.” 

And on the other two long-snappers:

“It was all shield (protection) so you didn’t see him block."

“Not real fired up about him because he can’t run. You’re always looking for somebody that's an athlete. He’s snap, protect and jog down there.” 

“He’s not the same athlete as Holba but at least he’s been exposed to protection. Athletic ability is where he falls short.”

All right, so Holba's the best, and if you wanted him, needed him, the sixth round was the place to draft him. And, hey, the New England Patriots drafted one in the fifth round in 2015 and he already has a ring.

These hopefully are the final words written about Holba until he retires a dozen or so years from now, because long-snappers are like cornerbacks in that the less heard from, the better.

Which brings me to the other criticism of this Steelers draft: lack of cornerbacks selected.

Rounds three and five apparently weren't good enough, although I have to admit I didn't have Cam Sutton or Brian Allen on my preferred list.

I remember interviewing Sutton at the NFL Combine and coming away impressed with his leadership and communication skills. But in a large crop of cornerback prospects, you're looking for any reason to whittle down the list, and analytics experts had ruled Sutton out for having short arms (30 inches) and a mediocre shuttle time (4.23). 

They also ruled Allen out for his awful shuttle time (4.34-4.37) but I found out later that the long-armed, 6-foot-3 Allen improved that shuttle time to 4.18 at his pro day. 

It might be a little thing but it increases the odds that Allen could be a find, a real gem. At that size and speed, with the ball skills of a former wide receiver, he's legitimately an interesting prospect.

As for Sutton, he once again impressed me over the phone after he was picked. Just a smart kid, far from Curtis Brown, the failed third-round pick of the 2011 draft who was difficult to understand and said to have emotional issues.

Sutton was graded as a high fourth-rounder by one of my favorite analysts, Joe Marino, and Sutton went late in the third to the Steelers. Here's what Marino wrote about him:

"Cameron Sutton profiles as an inside corner at the next level where his quick feet, strong reactionary skills, and awareness can shine. Adept at breaking on the football and playing through the receiver's hands to break up passes, Sutton has the short-area quickness to play sticky when defending short-to-intermediate routes. Sutton doesn't have the long speed and length needed to carry receivers vertically, and his ball skills aren't as polished from the trail, making his ideal fit that of a slot corner."

And that's what the Steelers needed most, in my opinion, a slot corner to eventually replace Will Gay

Other analysts believe Sutton's best position is safety, and that's what I wanted most at that slot position, a third safety.

There was also this from a Tennessee Volunteer fan who wrote on on our message board in support of Sutton: 

"Sutton and (Josh) Dobbs were two absolute fan favorites, so you'll undoubtedly get a lot of Vol fans following the Steelers over the next few years." 

The fan went on to rave about Sutton's work ethic and explained that he "had a poor DB coach," and also played through an ankle injury last season which hurt his tape.

Dobbs seems to be the other lightning rod for criticism from Steelers fans, who just see another fourth-round Landry Jones. Or worse, they see a third-stringer because the Steelers just signed Jones to a two-year contract.

But, Jones has started four games in these last two playoff seasons, which have gone down to the wire in terms of the won-loss records. The logic that "If Ben Roethlisberger's injured, the season's over anyway" doesn't wash because some injuries are minor and a qualified backup is necessary to win a game or two, a series or four. 

Sure, we would all like more from Jones, and perhaps Dobbs can become that guy. He's brilliant, has the athleticism, and for once won't be working on Aerospace Engineering projects at 3:30 the morning of a game. 

Dobbs is relieved to finally be able to concentrate only on football, so it should be interesting to watch how far and fast he can develop.

Have fourth-round quarterbacks ever become starters in this league? I can think of Kirk Cousins right away, so I had no problem drafting a late fourth-round QB with great character, smarts and skills. Dobbs, after all, fits right in with the rest of the draft in that regard: 

* First-rounder T.J. Watt oozes character and leadership, and his talent and athleticism and upside are obvious on tape. There may be questions about the need for more strength out of a college linebacker at that nickel DE position, as we found out with Jarvis Jones, but Watt is a far better athlete than Jones and likely has a better work ethic.

* Second-rounder JuJu Smith-Schuster was called a diva by one draftnick, but only because of his competitiveness and desire to win. He reportedly fought with a teammate in practice after - and because of - a loss. At a position that's need for character was underscored by the aforementioned Twitter fight following this pick, Smith-Schuster brings a very strong red-zone presence with tremendous upside at the tender age of 20. 

I was told to go back to watch tape of his 2015 season, when he played with less weight. I picked the game against Washington because of that great Husky secondary. Smith-Schuster spent most of the game blocking out of the slot for screens and the running back, and only took short passes from the weak-armed Cody Kessler. But Smith-Schuster ran powerfully after the catch, even lowered his head seemingly in search of contact. 

It's clear that Smith-Schuster will be the best blocking WR in the Steelers starting lineup, and being in the middle of Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, with Ladarius Green and Le'Veon Bell, completes a powerful arsenal of skilled weaponry for Roethlisberger. 

Smith-Schuster will not only love playing with a strong-armed QB, he'll appreciate the lack of primary attention he received from DBs in college. And it's clear that he'll replace Chris Hubbard on the field to give Bell the interior blocker needed in the 3-WR packages. 

It was a great pick. Legendary analyst Gil Brandt had JJS-S ranked 36th on his final board, but the Steelers, because teams were feasting on that large DB carcass throughout the second round, were able to grab him 62nd.

* Third and fourth-rounders Sutton, James Conner and Dobbs need no more discussion about their leadership and strong character. These guys caused me to feel as if I had been transported back in time to covering one of Bill Cowher's all-character, all-the-time drafts. 

Conner not only brings his inspiring human battle into the locker room, he's a goal-line hammer. It's unlikely Bell will leave the field much at the goal line, but he's not made of steel, as we found out when DeAngelo Williams replaced the injured Bell and couldn't score from the 1 at New England. 

And who's to say James Conner isn't Larry Csonka reincarnate?

I can't wait to watch Conner distance himself from those chemo treatments and resume his growth into manhood, because he very well could be that kind of power back in an NFL world filled with hybrid nickel safeties and dime linebackers.

* Fifth-rounder Allen is a shot in the dark, but a long, tall, fast one. As for his character, he graduated from Utah with two degrees --  Human development and family studies and Economics -- while raising a young family and playing football (and changing positions). I asked Allen why two degrees.

"My parents were real big on school," he said. "I started one of my majors and finished it up early and still had eligibility, so I was like, 'Well, why not try to get another degree?' My last semester of school I ended up taking 22 credits. I just wanted to finish and I ended up finishing with two degrees. That was a big thing for me."

Twenty-two credits?

"There were definitely times it was overwhelming," Allen said. "But you can't look at it that way. I got it done. Everybody has those days when things get hard, but I got through it. I got it done. And I can say it is one of my most proud moments."

Parents, tell your children about Brian Allen.

* OK, sixth-rounder Holba quit his high school team before his senior season because of a reported disagreement with the coaching staff. But he was a quarterback, so he must've been a leader in some fashion. And it's kind of cool having a long-snapper with attitude, isn't it?

* Seventh-rounder Keion Adams was what fans wanted in the sixth round: a result of waiting patiently for talent to fall in a deep draft. 

After using the sixth-round pick to bolster an annoying need, the Steelers scooped up an interesting pass-rushing talent who has 3-4 OLB size and bend. He's also a close friend of fellow Salisbury, N.C., native Javon Hargrave, and is only a few hours shy of graduating from Western Michigan with a degree in criminal justice.

I don't want to call it a great draft because I don't know. But I'm far from those disillusioned Steelers fans permeating social media with disgust. I'm truly looking forward to seeing the results of this weekend's work.


Prep New Mexico Top Stories