Part II: The Contenders

In Part II of Jim Wexell's first-round Steelers draft analysis, he takes an historical approach to evaluating the remaining prospects.

SAN DIEGO – Art Rooney, the Chief, the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, honeymooned with his wife Kass here in San Diego 80 years ago, but that's not the reason I typed up the following meld of old-school Steelers draft wisdom with this week's family trip to celebrate our 25th anniversary.

It only turned out that way.

In fact, Rooney and his bride spent a year on honeymoon, according to his son, Art Rooney Jr., in his brilliant book Ruanaidh. They spent more time in San Diego – in fact at a hotel a couple of blocks north of our hotel – because he was racing one of his horses at a meet in Tijuana.

Still, I only thought this to be an interesting coincidence – until I put the signs together.

At the airport, as we fled the mounting snow in Western Pennsylvania last weekend, we were met by a long line at the United Airlines check-in counter. When we finally reached the front of the line, another couple, with the help of security, cut in front of us. My wife didn't appreciate it, and told Mr. and Mrs. Franco Harris about it.

"Relax, honey," I told my wife. "When you turn around the fortunes of the local football club with one play, we'll let you skip to the front of any line you want."

Of course, the one play – the Immaculate Reception – didn't automatically turn the Steelers from losers to winners; the draft did that. And all of the details of that immaculate era are fleshed out by Rooney Jr. in what might just be the best history book ever written about a sports franchise.

It's a long read, but my timing was perfect. I hit the late 1960s in Ruanaidh just as our plane was leaving Pittsburgh. That's the time when Rooney Jr. was just taking over as personnel director, Buddy Parker's legacy of scorched draft picks was just ending, and Chuck Noll was just moving into the big chair. The pearls of wisdom in this book, from Rooney Jr., Noll and several others, illuminate how the Steelers were able to leap from losers to legends by drafting with an attitude.

With the Steelers at another crossroads-type draft this spring, I felt the coincidence too strong to overlook as I take my own literary step from my Part I half-mock of a week ago to a winnowing of the first-round prospects in this Part II segment. So, to help me break down my player evaluations, I'll strip Rooney Jr.'s wisdom straight from the pages of Ruanaidh and it will appear as such:

My one concern was to build a good scouting system. I became obsessed with player procurement: "Build through the draft." And I was obstinate about that – pigheaded some people thought. But I know I was right and would take on anyone who differed with me. [Sports Illustrated writer] Mort Sharnik would say, "You're on a quest." I didn't know the definition of "quest" and was too proud to ask. So did I look it up in the dictionary? No. I learned the meaning years later at a Broadway musical – "Man of LaMancha."

Don Quixote would say it was an honor and privilege to be on a quest, and that is how I felt about my job in the Steeler scouting department."

And so, with 17 players already eliminated via last week's half-mock, here's my quest to find the right first-round player for the Steelers this spring.

OG Mike IupatiThis is the player about whom I wrote with such enthusiasm after his team's bowl game, so I'll start with him. Iupati checked into the Senior Bowl at a fraction under 6-6 and 325 pounds and had a great week of practice, showing remarkable mobility for a man his size. And on the first snap of the game, a run down the left sideline, Iupati ran down the field while keeping defensive tackle Dan Williams at bay, to Iupati's right, with one arm.

I remembered that Noll was partial to basketball players, basketball being a movement sport. Noll wanted offensive linemen who could maintain a block while they were moving.

But my problem with Iupati is that he struggled throughout the rest of the Senior Bowl maintaining his blocks while standing still, or in pass protection, particularly against the smaller defensive tackle Geno Atkins. That said, it became obvious Iupati won't help – at least right away – the Steelers protect a quarterback who's been sacked 156 times in regular-season and playoff games throughout the last three seasons.

OC Maurkice PounceyI rank Pouncey ahead of Trent Williams because Williams, who played poorly at left tackle this season, was moved to center for Oklahoma's bowl game and showed he's not in Pouncey's class as an interior lineman. Pouncey can pass block, get to the second level, and he plays with tremendous enthusiasm, alertness and leadership. But there's something that bothers me about the 6-5, 318-pounder: He doesn't play with much leverage.

Another thing he stressed was "playing with leverage." Playing with leverage was more important than brute strength. "Play with your legs. Hit through. Get under and up into the other guy. Deliver a blow. Don't be taking a blow." This was Noll the teacher indoctrinating a new pupil. He spoke with sureness and enthusiasm that I couldn't help but be dazzled.

That was Rooney Jr.'s description of Noll the day before the 1969 draft, when they selected Joe Greene. The philosophy paid off again five years later:

"Ya gotta see this Webster!" Haley exclaimed, and see him I did. I saw him knock a prospective first-round pick, 275 pounds of muscle and beef, halfway back to where he came from. "Look at Webbie get up under his face mask. Wham! He hits like Rocky Marciano," Haley chortled.

OT Bruce CampbellTalk about a lineman who can move. Campbell, I suspect, will turn the combine on its ear when he runs the 40-yard dash. He also benched 490 pounds last spring. In the one game I watched him play for Maryland, Campbell went untested by the ordinary Boston College pass-rushers. However, the knock on this 6-7, 310-pound workout warrior is that he's injury-prone. So, instead of running with Noll's classic line, "You can't make the club from the tub," I'll go with Rooney Jr.'s contemplation before the Steelers selected cornerback Mel Blount in the third round of the 1970 draft (after taking quarterback Terry Bradshaw and receiver Ron Shanklin with the first two picks):

Noll was certainly not a disciple of Buddy Parker but in some ways their values were similar. Your first need, Parker always said, was a quarterback who could throw, and then you had to get him some receivers. "Everything else is defense," he would add.

And, of course, the Steelers need to find fresh defensive talent. I have six possible candidates – one of whom I'd used in my half-mock at pick 17, so I'll include him, Earl Thomas, for the time being.

FS Thomas or Chad JonesThomas of Texas is the better ballhawk of the two prospects, and also has the potential to play cornerback, but that shouldn't rule out Jones, who, at a listed 6-3, 230, is much bigger than the 5-10, 195-pound Thomas. Jones can cover receivers man-to-man as well. He proved that in LSU's bowl game against Penn State, where he also proved to be a special-teams demon. Jones blocked one punt and returned several others, and that was only on one unit, as his coach used him all over the field on every teams unit. It was a repeat of several LSU games I'd watched this season.

ILB Sean Weatherspoon or Brandon SpikesWhile Weatherspoon virtually disappeared in his two national TV appearances (against Nebraska and Navy), he played well at the Senior Bowl. Weatherspoon played the middle and shot gaps to bring down ballcarriers and retreated adroitly in coverage. He also played with great enthusiasm and leadership, but, as in the player comparison above, at a listed 6-1, 241, he's not as big as Spikes, who's listed at 6-3, 256. Spikes's speed has been questioned, but he fought through several leg injuries this season and could surprise at the combine. He's also a leader, but a more physical presence than Weatherspoon, who bears a close physical resemblance to Lawrence Timmons, the Steelers' other inside linebacker.

So, to eliminate two of these four prospects, I'll lean on the argument Rooney Jr.'s friend, the Giants' then-general manager, George Young, gave him to present to Noll during the Rooney Jr.-Noll squabble over whether to draft Franco Harris or Robert Newhouse in the first round in 1972:

"Tell him that argument was settled over 6,000 years ago when Socrates said: ‘A good big man will beat a good little man every time.'"

DE Carlos DunlapAt a listed 6-6, 290, this Florida Gator looks for all the world to be the perfect 3-4 end. He's flashed pass-rush ability the last couple of seasons, and this season showed he's strong enough to stuff the run – when he wants to. Lack of a consistent motor seemed to be a problem all season for Dunlap, as was a DUI that led to a suspension the week of the de facto national championship game against Alabama. So, of course, his elimination from the Steelers' plans was foretold by Noll, who laid down one of the most important Steelers commandments during his hiring interview. This is Noll after Rooney Jr., tired of dealing with coaches' racisms in the late 1960s, asked him about his feelings toward African-Americans:

"I'm prejudiced against bad athletes. I'm prejudiced against slow guys, dumb guys, bad actors. Get us people who can think on their feet, who are tough, strong, fast, people of good character, and I will teach them."

OLB Brandon GrahamIt's an easy comparison of this Wolverine to former Wolverine LaMarr Woodley, but Graham might've had a better senior season than Woodley, or at least a better finish. Graham carried his great season into the Senior Bowl, where he dominated the weak collection of offensive tackles in practice and again in the game. He played with speed, power, panache and his motor did not quit. The problem with Graham: He plays a position at which the Steelers recently poured $51 million into James Harrison and will soon be giving a similar amount to Woodley. However, I give you Rooney Jr.'s overriding draft principle, the one he used to build a dynasty:

The approach I favored was a simple one: Draft the best athlete available. The hell with drafting to fill a certain position. There were NFL coaches who looked at positions where they were thin and tried to reinforce them through the draft. There was no better way, I thought, to lose the prospective superstars and pack your roster with garden-variety talent.

So what we're left with are these three players:

Brandon Graham, Brandon Spikes, Chad Jones.

I did not enter this essay with those names in mind. In fact, my initial "quest" a month ago was to revive the running game by drafting, finally, an anchor, even two, for the offensive line. But in "reading the defense," or in this case the Steelers' historical tea leaves, I'm left with those three.

Are they the ones? Doubtfully. Will other names pop up at next week's combine? Probably. But in that regard, I'll leave you with Rooney Jr.'s words of wisdom concerning the early days of the combine and all of its weights and measurements:

… the camp itself had become a showcase for players with exceptional speed and agility. Jack Butler of Blesto, for one, thought it was misplaced emphasis. "You'd better evaluate a kid on how well he plays the game of football rather than how well he hops, skips, and jumps in his underwear," Butler said. And Chuck Noll repeated the line he had used about the rookie who could leap over cars. "These workouts," he said, "are all well and good in their place, but are we looking for football players or auditioning for the halftime show?"

Just remember: if we learn from history, we are bound to repeat it. Or something like that.


Steel City Insider Top Stories