Steelers can't contain draft-day enthusiasm

The Pittsburgh Steelers let the draft come to them, and they came away with two offensive playmakers who should excite their fan base for several years.

PITTSBURGH – The Steelers went into draft day looking to fortify both lines, but they ended up with two of the more recognizable offensive playmakers in the entire college crop – running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed.

The star power made it quite an easy day for the reporters at the South Side headquarters.

"That's why we took them, to make you guys happy," team chairman Dan Rooney joked.

With eight offensive tackles off the board before the Steelers drafted in the first round, and without a defensive lineman worthy of the 23rd pick, the Steelers were ecstatic to find Mendenhall available.

A 5-10, 225-pounder who ran a 4.45 40 at the combine, Mendenhall is a combination of power and speed and scouts believe he's a plus receiver as well. He rushed for 1,681 yards last season as a junior at Illinois to become the Big 10 MVP. He won't turn 21 until June 19.

Sweed is the big receiver Ben Roethlisberger hoped the Steelers would add this off-season. The 6-4, 215-pounder from Texas ran a 4.54 40 at his pro day. He missed half of last season with a wrist injury. He'd played with the injury for the first half of the season and caught 19 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns. The previous year, Sweed caught 46 passes for 801 yards (17.4 avg.) and 12 touchdowns.

Sweed's a deep threat with exceptional tracking skills and has been called "driven" by scouts. His negative is a lack of polish in his route-running. One scout said Sweed has a tendency to cut off his heels and that his lack of polish would prevent him from being drafted in the first round.

That scout was correct, but the Steelers still had a first-round grade on Sweed and were ecstatic when Jacksonville fell for the Quentin Groves smokescreen. The Jags traded with receiver-starved Tampa to draft Groves, the 3-4 outside linebacker, just ahead of the Steelers. But the Steelers wanted Sweed all along.

"Very surprised," said wide receivers coach Randy Fichtner, "and very ecstatic back in the back of the room. Really excited. I never thought that he would still be at that slot."

Earlier in the day, Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert couldn't contain his delight in landing Mendenhall.

"We are very excited," Colbert said. "It was unexpected. I don't want his agent hearing that, but it's the truth."

The Steelers came into the draft wanting to trade down, but Colbert said he had a list of 15 players "and we said ‘If these guys are there, we're not trading down because they're that good and we want them.'"

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has advocated a strong two-back approach since taking the job, and Mendenhall provides the perfect inside complement to Willie Parker's outside skills. Mendenhall proved that in the Rose Bowl when he burst through the middle of the line and ran 79 yards for a touchdown against USC. He finished the game with 155 yards on 17 carries for an average of 9.1 yards per carry. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry in his three-year career.

"He showed up big on the big stage," said Tomlin, "and you like guys that show that characteristic – the ability to rise up at opportune moments. But he's got a complete body of work. Any tape you turn on he's a force for that football team and one of the reasons that they were able to get to that (Rose Bowl) game."

One of Mendenhall's blocking backs at Illinois was his older brother Walter. His blocking back in Pittsburgh will be former Illini runner Carey Davis.

Mendenhall grew up in the Chicago suburb of Skokie as a Raiders fan. He left Niles West High School for the University of Illinois where he became an Academic All-Big 10 honoree as a sophomore. Pro Football Weekly compares him to Herschel Walker because he's so thickly muscled and is more of a straight-line runner. That's a drawback that possibly cost Mendenhall several spots in the first round.

"It was tough, I ain't going to lie," Mendenhall said of the draft-day wait. "I thought that I was going to be the one who was going to come into the draft and not be nervous at all. As it started rolling, the sweat started rolling as well. I feel good about it right now."

As for the Steelers' shaky offensive line and the harassment it caused quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last season, Tomlin offered another theory.

"There are two schools of thought to protect a quarterback," he said. "You can get linemen or you can get him weapons – people that people have to account for. Obviously with this pick, we've gotten a weapon. So what he is able to do on a football field will help our quarterback and our football team."

Sweed, of course, is another weapon. While Mendenhall was more reserved with reporters during his conference call, Sweed, who fell further in the draft, was giddy and outgoing.

"Everything happens for a reason," Sweed said. "I am with the Pittsburgh Steelers and I am ready to get in and go to work."

He was asked about Roethlisberger and the quarterback's request for a big receiver.

"He was looking for a big receiver and now he has one," Sweed said.

Fichtner told a story about Sweed's highly regarded deep-ball tracking skills. "In Austin, at the indoor facility that's one of the bubbles, it has the lights that shine up on the side of the bubble so there's not roof lighting. The lighting is actually kind of poor. It's awful hard to track the ball in there and he really went through and had a tremendous workout. He did the things that he did at the combine even in tracking the ball. He's able to adjust to a ball coming to him and away from him, put it on the outside shoulder and make a smooth transition catch. What he also does is finish. He can break tackles. He still has size and a lot more room to get bigger."

Fichtner also enthused about Sweed's personality.

"When we were at the combine and you get a chance to see a lot of guys," Fichtner said. "He came through. It was kind of neat to start to build a little relationship with him. He's a fun personality. He's a little bit country, but he's definitely a city kid."


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