I had very few expectations heading into the weekend. In general, the NFL Draft is a joyous occasion; a perfectly legitimate reason to have a few pops and devote two days of your life to a ritual that centers around a guy in a suit routinely mispronouncing names of players that he (or you) couldn't identify if they introduced themselves while sporting one of those "Hello, my name is..." tags. Incredibly, there are people who find the whole spectacle exceptionally boring, but I suspect these are the same folks who go to Super Bowl parties to mingle.
Procedurally, for me this draft wasn't much different than the others -- couch, laptop, remote, cold beverage all present and accounted for -- but I had spent the week preparing myself for the seemingly inevitable reality that the Pittsburgh Steelers wouldn't come close to sniffing Branden Albert, the offensive wunderkind who would singlehandedly save the franchise -- and Ben Roethlisberger's life. Moreover, they might get stuck with Gosder Cherilus or, God forbid, Jeff Otah. Worse, the club could choose to address another, marginal need. Like, for example, running back or wide receiver. You may have heard something about my aversion to wasting first-round picks on running backs, or how I love to climb up on my soap box to wax annoying about how tall wide receivers are overrated. I was aware of the pre-draft speculation that Pittsburgh could be in position to land Jonathan Stewart or Malcolm Kelly, and I took the news as you might expect: not well. By Saturday morning, I had prepared myself for that eventuality by reciting a phrase that got me through adolescence, but that should be used sparingly because of the lingering bitterness and cynicism it evokes: expect the worst and you'll never be disappointed.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 23rd pick: as players previously identified as best suited (and sometimes barely suited -- the Falcons drafted Sam Baker 21st overall for cripe's sake) to plug leaks along the offensive and defensive lines went off the board, it became clear that Pittsburgh could end up with either a running back or a wide receiver. And I fully embraced that possibility. Unlike, say, the Houston Texans, who watched seven offensive tackles go off the board only to panic, trade up, and reach for Duane Brown, the Steelers stayed the course, but in a good way.
And the process repeated itself one round later. Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed were coming to Pittsburgh, a notion that no one had imagined on Saturday morning. In the span of a few hours, Pittsburgh found a way to save Willie Parker from the Curse of 370, and add a big-play wide receiver who also happens to resemble the one they let walk three years ago.
There were still glaring issues along the offensive line, and various defensive needs, but it was hard to find fault with the Day 1 strategy. Opinions varied on Day 2 -- it wouldn't be a Kevin Colbert draft if that wasn't the case -- but after Pittsburgh made their final selection in 2008, Mike Tomlin appeared on Total Access to rehash a hectic two days. When Jamie Dukes, quite possibly the dumbest person on television, wondered why the Steelers didn't better address the gaping hole on the offensive line (his best question of the weekend, by the way), Tomlin offered an interesting response, basically the same theory he put forward when talking to the local media on Saturday:
"There are two schools of thought to protect a quarterback ... 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."
On its face, it sounds like a flippant remark; spin intended to obfuscate the obvious o-line deficiencies. And maybe it was; but there is also some truth to Tomlin's statement. Bill Belichick surrounded Tom Brady with enough weapons to mask a mediocre group of pass blockers, and the Patriots set all kinds of scoring records on the way to a schadenfreude-tastic Super Bowl implosion (but prior to that, they won 18 games, most in convincing fashion). The problem, though, is that the quarterback is vulnerable -- Brady spent plenty of time picking himself off the turf (usually after a big play, so that's the trade-off). For the Roethlisberger, who sometimes seems to hold onto the ball for the sole purpose of taking a "there's no way he gets up from that" hit, such a scheme might not be the best use of $100 million.
But what were the Steelers going to do, trade up for Cherilus or Otah? Uh, no. Most fans are adherents of the best-player-available approach to roster-building. Some are more fanatical than others, but we all agree that it trumps the "draft for need" philosophy that resulted in the Texans wondering why the hell they traded up for Duane Brown. And while such a strategy would've no doubt pleased Jamie Dukes immensely, Big Ben would've been less thrilled. Not so much because he didn't get his tall wideout, but because he has NFL Network like the rest of us; he knows Cherilus, Otah or whomever wouldn't have made his job any easier. If anything, he'd take just as many behind-the-line beatings. Neither lineman would've seen much time next season, which, given how the draft unfolded and the current state of the Steelers' front five, renders the selection pretty much meaningless.
The line is still in shambles, but now, Roethlisberger at least has options. And these options, certainly more than the addition of one fat guy who might not even get on the field as a rookie, will affect how opponents game-plan the Steelers. Big Ben will still take some hits -- it's in his nature, apparently -- but if nothing else, we've seen the last of the season-ending 3rd-and-6 quarterback sneaks. And for me, that's well worth a first-round running back and a tall wideout.
Picks indirectly solve o-line issues
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