"Competition has been my mentality," the coach answered. "Competition is the truest motivator."
If the 91 players on the current roster mean anything, Tomlin's prayer has already been answered.
Teams are allowed only 80 players at any point in the offseason, so the Steelers must cut a player every time a draft pick is signed.
Won't those shell pads be a-poppin' this spring?
It was almost an I-don't-care-about-the-numbers approach to the draft. Or, better, an I'm-taking-the-best-football-player-right-here approach, and that's what keeps winning programs winning.
Here's the rundown:
First round – Maurkice Pouncey is the center this team has needed since Jeff Hartings retired, but Tomlin said he'll start at right guard. Now, that doesn't mean he'll "start" at the position on opening day. I have my reservations about that. This is not a Steve Hutchinson/Alan Faneca type of player. Pouncey isn't nearly that athletic, or that sure-fire of an opening-day player. But, for a center, he'll eventually fill a gaping hole, a hole the team has wanted to fill with bigger men than Sean Mahan, Justin Hartwig, Darnell Stapleton, Doug Legursky and A.Q. Shipley. It's a response to today's 350-pound nose tackles.
Even though some in the organization remain high on Legursky, the center can't be the small-but-quick pivot man of the past. And that's fine. But with Pouncey and Legursky, more competition means that if Hartwig again suffers a toe injury – whether he chooses to lie to the public about it or not – he's gone. There'll be no more waiting around on mediocre veteran talent. Trai Essex understands that as well, and I'm sure last year's third-round pick, Kraig Urbik, does, too. Pouncey should light a fire under one of those right guards and all of the centers.
Second round – The Baltimore Ravens, again, won over the critics, this time by drafting Sergio Kindle with the 43rd pick. The Steelers, again, heard the critics criticize their draft because they picked Jason Worilds 52nd.
For what reason, I don't know, because if you watched Kindle closely in the NCAA title game, where he had a couple of sacks while unblocked, you saw he was dominated by Alabama and TE Colin Peek. The critics raved about the sacks, while those same critics missed Worilds in the second half of the Chick-fil-A Bowl game, where he dominated two consecutive and late series to clinch Virginia Tech's win.
At the combine, Worilds was four pounds heavier than Kindle and only .01 slower. And in linebacker drills, Worilds stood out. In fact, he and an Ohio State hybrid by the name of Thaddeus Gibson were clearly the most fluid of the ends looking to make the switch to linebacker.
And one more edge: Kindle will play this season as a 23-year-old, while Worilds won't turn 23 until next March. Had Worilds stayed in school, I believe he would've been drafted much higher than 43rd.
Worilds not only stood out in his bowl game and at the combine, Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said Worilds' Pro Day workout, in which some timed him under 4.50 in the 40, was better than LaMarr Woodley's Pro Day workout, the one that impressed the Steelers so much back in 2007.
My guess is that Worilds won't redshirt this season. I expect him to rotate with James Harrison and Woodley on pass downs as an end in their 4-3 sub-package alignment. It'll be a break those two veteran iron men have needed the last couple of years as they've refused to come out, even though they play the most physically demanding position on the field.
After a week of practice in which Sanders was lauded by scouts and media alike, he performed poorly in the game and, worse, didn't show any of the alleged quickness as a punt returner. Sanders explained – after new WRs coach Scottie Montgomery told us that Sanders is well versed at all WR positions – that he'd never played wide before, only the slot, and that he was uncomfortable playing wide in the all-star game.
Regardless, Sanders was a rising prospect among those who've watched a heck of a lot more SMU tape than I have (praise be to God), so I'm sure they've seen that inside slot quickness. As for what he'll provide the Steelers, they had a numbers overflow at the position anyway, so even incoming acquisitions such as Arnaz Battle must be prepared to take on all comers this training camp.
Fourth round – The drafting of Gibson gave the Steelers two of the best 3-4 pass-rushing prospects in this draft. That's an amazing statement for a team drafting against a reported 13 other 3-4 defensive teams in the league for this coming season. Many of those teams are new to the defense, and certainly needed edge rushers, didn't they?
Gibson actually played the position at Ohio State, and dropped frequently – and efficiently – in the Rose Bowl. He was a step away from a couple of sacks, and his sure interception was broken up by a non-alert free safety. But for bad luck, Gibson would've been praised as a sensational prospect after the Rose Bowl game. Along with the near "splash plays," Gibson consistently held the point and was disciplined in his lane, and he didn't give up much, if anything, in coverage. On one late 3rd-and-10 play, Gibson ran down quick running back LaMichael James on a slant coming from the opposite side. As James was "quick to tuck" and run up the field, Gibson turned on his competitive speed, grabbed the halfback, and bent him back a yard, the yard that would've resulted in a first down. Instead, Oregon missed a field goal that effectively ended the game.
While Gibson may not have the lightning burst that Worilds has, he compares more favorably athletically than either Clark Haggans or Jason Gildon when those future Steelers left college. In fact, Worilds compares to Haggans' sidekick, Joey Porter, who also impressed the Steelers with a 4.5 40 on his Pro Day. And, again,
Worilds and Gibson came out a year early. Those two will be placed under Harrison's care this summer, and will pay a price. The payoff will be obvious in the next couple of seasons.
Fifth round – You can't make chicken salad out of a weak cornerback crop, so the Steelers didn't try. First of all, Kyle Wilson was off their first-round board because of three alleged college transgressions. So, when Joe Haden was overdrafted by the Browns, the Steelers weren't about to overdraft Kareem Jackson. They took the sure-fire center instead.
In the middle rounds, the Steelers weren't going to reach for IUP's Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, and when the player's highlights were shown, it was obvious that on the field he doesn't have the 4.3 speed at which he was clocked at his Pro Day. So, the Steelers traded for Bryant McFadden in a Cardinals' salary dump.
McFadden has much to prove, as do veterans William Gay, Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis. All four will gun for one another this spring and summer in the competition for one starting job. The intense pressure just might compress one of those coal lumps into a diamond.
As for the rest of the fifth round, Tennessee LT Chris Scott was a surprising talent last year, but it became clear his feet would not hold up at the position in the NFL. But Scott's size and strength – in addition to his experience as an SEC edge pass-blocker – make him a contender for a spot inside or at right tackle. I consider Scott to be a Ramon Foster with better explosiveness off the ball. So you'd hope the competition level between Scott, Foster, Essex, Tony Hills and Jonathan Scott would push each into the best condition of their lives coming into camp, and even motivate starters Willie Colon and Max Starks to do the same.
The 5b choice of Crezdon Butler didn't do much for me. I'd watched Clemson a couple of times early and disregarded both senior cornerbacks. And his combine cornerback drills resulted in this line in my notebook: "Too high in 'pedal. Too tight." But, he's Steelers size and allegedly "can get the man down." And he can't be any worse in coverage than what the Steelers already have, so let Crazy Crezdon add to the competition.
The 5c choice of Stevenson Sylvester was a bit of a surprise, but as I'm beginning to understand Tomlin, it shouldn't have been. While the Jack Ham-driven Western Pennsylvania world of old-school football wanted Sean Lee in the second round, I knew better. Tomlin doesn't care about Ham and his perfect decisions; he cares about Timmons, Ziggy Hood, Worilds and their quick-twitch muscle fiber. Tomlin wanted DeAndre Levy as a mid-round inside backer last draft, but the Detroit Lions wanted him earlier. And now, Tomlin has Foote back on the roster because Levy played so well and so fast that he pushed Foote out of his starting MLB job.
So, I should've known better than to write off Utah's No. 10 as a 4-3 will backer. It was easy to eliminate such a player when Bill Cowher called the shots, but Tomlin wants quick playmakers in the middle, and Sylvester is that type of player. While I never isolated on Sylvester, his No. 10 jersey often interrupted my focus on hybrid Koa Misi, who, by the way, was overdrafted at pick 40 by the Dolphins. As for the competitive angle, Sylvester gives the Steelers five ILBs (not counting the two CFL special-teams aces signed in the winter). The team normally only keeps four ILBs.
Sixth round – My pre-draft prediction had the Steelers landing their power running back right here. And I was right, except I had them drafting LSU's Charles Scott because I never expected Jonathan Dwyer to be there. Dwyer ended up with the Steelers and should become a steal. While I punched holes in Dwyer's game (never blocked, rarely caught, played a strange hybrid position, out of shape at combine) as a first-rounder, he's a stud as a sixth rounder. That late of a landing will certainly motivate Dwyer, who'll compete with an already-motivated Isaac Redman for the third tailback job behind Mewelde Moore.
By the way, Moore shouldn't get too cozy back there, since the running back position – with only fullback Frank Summers adding to the numbers – could be in for a jobs slashing if, say, an extra linebacker is kept for special teams (or even Anthony Madison, since no choice gunner was drafted).
At 6b, with the pick acquired from the Cardinals (made by trading the pick acquired for Santonio Holmes), the Steelers went with WR/PR Antonio Brown. If Limas Sweed needed any more urgency to his career, Brown provides it. A draft pick only need flash a few times and show an understanding of the pro game to force the release of a disappointing veteran. And Brown, with his eye-popping receiving and return numbers, could be the electric return man this team still lacks.
Worthington, like Keisel, is an athletic big man at 6-5.1, 292. At his Ohio State Pro Day, Worthington ran a 5.02 40 and had a vertical jump of 35½ inches. His advantage is that he played the 3-4 end spot for Ohio State. He showed that he could hold up two blockers (even if those two drove him off the ball, it still took two!) and also showed pass-rush ability. At a position already stocked with five players, Worthington is likely a lock for the practice squad.
The other seventh-round pick was traded earlier in the week for QB Byron Leftwich, who's the early frontrunner to start during Ben Roethlisberger's suspension and thereby stacking the roster at QB, too. Leftwich could even become a fan favorite if the rocket-armed QB can consistently hook up with blazer Mike Wallace down the field.
Free agents – Lindsey Witten is the one Steelers free agent who should've been drafted by someone, but it looks like the Steelers swiped another 3-4 OLB from under the noses of those 3-4 teams.
Witten had seven sacks in his first two games last year, but a stomach virus forced him to the hospital in September and he never recovered on the field (even though he didn't miss a game). Witten did, however, post the only sub-1.6 10-yard time among DL at the combine, so perhaps his game is returning. Witten adds another body to the now overstuffed but all-important OLB position.
At nose tackle, with Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke, Scott Paxson and Steve McLendon on the roster, the Steelers didn't need competition, but they added one player after the draft in Virginia Tech's Cordarrow Thompson. In his bowl game, Thompson showed consistent pass-rush ability for a big man.
At safety, the Steelers added two undrafted free agents to challenge Ryan Mundy, but the position had already received a much-needed upgrade through the return of Troy Polamalu and the acquisition of Will Allen.
So, overall, the roster appears to be stuffed. That will become more evident as the draft picks sign their contracts and some veterans are cut.