Why Pitt Standout James Conner’s Impact with Steelers Could Come Sooner than You Think….

“I’ve seen him play. You’ve seen him play. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be good.”

That quote was from me to my brother last week, shortly after the Steelers selected Pitt running back James Conner with their compensatory third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Conner, Steelers 2017 3rd round draft pick

James Conner rushing for Pitt @ Heinz Field. Photo credit: PennLive.com

Obviously, being from Pittsburgh and a huge fan of the University of Pittsburgh, my opinion about James Conner may be partially due to homerism. After all, leading up to the draft, how many football fans expressed a desire for their favorite pro team to draft a player from their favorite college team?

This happens all the time.

But I wasn’t the only one who reacted joyfully to the news that Conner’s college home stadium–Heinz Field–would turn into his professional home stadium.

  • First, who doesn’t love everything about James Conner?

After rushing for 1,759 yards in his sophomore year of 2014, Conner was named the ACC Player of the Year.

  • But just when it appeared that Conner was headed for greatness, he received a double punch to the gut.

The first punch was a torn MCL, which he sustained in the 2015 season opener. The second, more devastating strike occurred many months later, when Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer  that was discovered by doctors while he was undergoing rehab for his injured knee.

You know the story by now: Conner absorbed both punches and kept on fighting. By May of 2016, he was declared cancer-free; and in his final season at Pitt, he rushed for 1,092 yards on 216 attempts.

  • Obviously, less than a year after the physical toll that chemo and the MCL tear took on his body, the burst and explosiveness weren’t quite the same.

It’s impossible to know where James Conner would have been drafted without those setbacks, but he was selected high enough that he’ll be given much more than a puncher’s chance to have a decent career with the Steelers.

  • And why does it have to be just decent?

I realize Le’Veon Bell, and his current status as the NFL’s best running back is one reason James Conner may never get to truly make his mark at the professional level. Another reason is obviously the knee injury.

But when James Conner lines up in the offensive backfield this season, he won’t be the only Steelers running back who suffered a torn MCL at Heinz Field in 2015. Le’Veon Bell sustained that very same injury in Week 8 against the Bengals and was done for the year.

  • Which brings me back to the chance James Conner might get to make a difference for the Steelers sooner than people think.

For anyone to examine the Steelers top four picks, which also include linebacker T.J. Watt, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Cameron Sutton and wonder if they will be able to help them in their rookie seasons may have forgotten about the depth issues the team has faced in recent years.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Bengals

Le’Veon Bell before he was injured against the Bengals. Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS.com

And that’s especially been the case at the running back spot, where Le’Veon Bell, despite his all-world talents and tremendous production, has missed a total of 17 games due to either injuries or suspensions over his first four seasons.

As for the postseason, the 2016 edition was the first Le’Veon Bell was actually healthy at the start of. And while he did set franchise records by rushing for a combined 337 yards in back-to-back victories over the Dolphins and Chiefs, he was limited in the AFC title game versus the Patriots after aggravating a groin injury he reportedly had been nursing for a couple of weeks.

Unlike the torn MCL Le’Veon Bell suffered in 2015 or the hyper-extended knee he sustained at the end of the 2014 season (both occurring after questionable tackles in games against the Bengals), it could be argued that an injured groin for a running back is a symptom of overuse.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But the one thing that is certain is that Pittsburgh has been limited at the running back spot in each of the past three postseasons.

  • You know what they say about not learning from history.

Therefore, while it would be foolish to think James Conner is going to get any greater workload than what LeGarrette Blount and DeAngelo Williams both received while playing behind a healthy Le’Veon Bell in the past, it would also be foolish to assume he won’t be called upon to help the Steelers in 2017.

If the Steelers truly believe Bell’s injury, which required surgical repair in March, was caused by overuse, they might already be thinking about lightening the star running back’s load–even if it’s just a few less carries a game.

If the Steelers are forced to turn to James Conner for one reason or another, what kind of running back will they be getting? That’s hard to predict. Obviously, like every other draft prospect, Conner has his weaknesses, which, according to his NFL.com draft profile, include average lateral movement and a lack of elite speed. But then again, those were some of the same criticisms Bell had to overcome coming out of college–and that was before he suffered a torn MCL. 

James Conner, Steelers, Le'Veon Bell backup, Steelers backup running back

Soon former Pitt running back James Conners will be delivering stiff arms while wearning the Black and Gold. Photo Credit: Julia Rendleman, Post-Gazette

Despite his maturity issues that have led to two drug-related suspensions, Le’Veon Bell is a hard worker and has certainly gotten the most out of his abilities. If there was a do-over of the 2013 NFL Draft, instead of lasting until the second round, No. 26 would be a top-10 selection.

Will James Conner have a chance to get the most out of his abilities in Pittsburgh? There’s no doubt he’s a hard worker, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. As per Kevin Colbert in his post-draft media appearances, Conner has a great opportunity to make a name for himself on special teams.

As for moving up the running back depth chart, James Conner obviously has to develop an all-around game that includes being a reviving target for Ben Roethlisberger out of the backfield and picking up the blitz (two things Bell also excels at, which is why he never comes off the field).

The sooner James Conner improves in areas besides just running the ball, the quicker he’ll distance himself from the likes of Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint, which shouldn’t pose too great a challenge.

  • What about the very top of the running back depth chart?

As it stands right now, why would anyone want to mess with what Le’Veon Bell is doing? The answer is, nobody would.

But in addition to his injury history and suspension issues, there could be contractual issues with Le’Veon Bell. Unless the two sides come to an agreement, Le’Veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag. Sure, he will get paid rather handsomely, but he’s eventually going to want a multi-year deal that will annually pay him at least the $12 million he’ll earn next season.

  • What happens if the two sides never agree on Le’Veon Bell’s worth?

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell will ink a new deal and go on to have a Hall of Fame career, while James Conner develops as a player and bides his time in Pittsburgh for four years, before signing with another team looking for a featured running back.

But this is not a perfect world, and that’s why James Conner’s impact with the Steelers could come a lot sooner than people think.

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How Carlos Emmons’ Story Offers Hope for Steelers 2017 7th Round Draftee Keion Adams

he end of the 2017 NFL Draft in Pittsburgh saw the Steelers draft Keion Adams, outside linebacker from Western Michigan in a pick that saw immediate comparisons to Arthur Moats.

For the record, the Steelers 2017 7th round pick stands at 6’2” and weighs in at 245 and led the MAC conference with 17 tackles for a loss and posted 13 sacks over two seasons as a starter.

Keion Adams, Steelers 2017 7th round pick

Steelers 7th round pick Keion Adams closes in on Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush. Photo Credit: Bryan Bennett, Kalamazoo Gazette

If you were to play a quick game of word association with a citizen of Steelers Nation and said “Keion Adams” the likely response would be “practice squad.” And landing on the Steelers practice squad wouldn’t be a bad outcome for a 7th round pick.

  • But Steelers history suggests that Keion Adams quest to make the final 53 man roster is far from hopeless.

Oh, to be certain, the odds are long. He’s looking at a Steelers outside linebacker depth chart that lists Bud Dupree and James Harrison as starters, with Moates and Anthony Chickillo as backups along with 2017’s 1st round draft pick T.J. Watt ahead of him.

  • Suffice to say, Keion Adams certainly shouldn’t commit himself to a long-term lease anywhere in greater Pittsburgh.

And like seemingly every NFL draft hopful, Keion Adams has a YouTube highlight clip:

Ok… That highlight clip doesn’t exactly conjure memories of Lambert and Lloyd. Fair enough. But Carlos Emmons was in Keion Adam’s shoes once before, and his story gives the Steelers 2017 7th round pick every reason to chin up.

Carlos Emmons and the Steelers 1996 Draft Class

Future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene departed Pittsburgh following the Steelers loss in Super Bowl XXX. But one of the reasons why the Steelers were ready to let Greene go was because Jason Gildon was ready to start.

  • 20/20 hindsight tells us that Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe made a mistake in letting the great Greene go in favor of the merely good Gildon.

But that fact wasn’t apparent on the fields of St. Vincents in the summer of 1996 and even if it had been, it would have meant nothing to Carlos Emmons, the outside linebacker that the Steelers had drafted in the 7th round of the 1996 NFL Draft.

Carlos Emmons, Steelers 7th round picks,

Steelers 1996 7th Round Pick Carlos Emmons’s story offers 2017 7th rounder hope Keion Adams. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Rantsports.com

Mind you, as Super Bowl losers the Steelers were drafting 2nd to last in each round. That made Carlos Emmons the 242nd player drafted out of 254 names called during the 1996 NFL Draft. As if those odds weren’t daunting enough, in addition to Gildon, the Steelers had just resigned Greg Lloyd and had drafted Steve Conley in the third round.

They also had Eric Ravotti who could play on both the inside and outside and, while Chad Brown was a fixture at inside linebacker, the team knew he should shift to the outside should the need arise (as it did, when injuries felled Greg Lloyd in the season opener.)

If that didn’t complicate things enough, the Steelers also had Jerry Olsavsky, Donta Jones and Earl Holmes behind Levon Kirkland and Brown on the inside.

  • Clearly, 1996 did not figure to be a good year to be a linebacker drafted by the Steelers in the 7th round.

As you’d expect, Carlos Emmons wasn’t a player most fans were eager to get a look at once preseason started. But during the Steelers America Bowl game in Tokyo, Emmons made the most of his time and recorded a sack late in the 4th quarter.

Carlos Emmons, Steelers Carlos Emmons,

Carlos Emmons tackles a Kansas City Chief. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette, Peter Diana

Dick LeBeau and Bill Cowher continued to give Emmons opportunities in preseason and, if memory serves, he led the team in sacks during that five exhibition game series. When cut down day came the Steelers had a quandary. Their linebackers all looked good.

  • So the Steelers did the unconventional thing, and kept 10 linebackers on their 1996 opening day active roster.

Seven of those linebacker dressed for the Steelers 1996 home opener at Jacksonville, and by the end of the game only 4 of them were in uniform. Greg Lloyd tore his patella tendon, Jason Gildon suffered a knee injury, and so did Steven Conley.

Things looked so bad that Dick LeBeau openly discussed moving to a 4-3, but that wasn’t necessary as Gildon was back in the lineup sooner than expected.

Carlos Emmons had been in street clothes for the season opener, but he played in all 15 of the Steelers other games, and by the end of 1997 he was starting in after Greg Lloyd’s season ended injury. Emmons would go on to start during 1998 and 1999 before leaving for Philadelphia as a free agent, where he played for four years and then went on to play 3 more in for the Giants.

To be clear, when you talk about the Steelers lineage at outside linebacker you typically start by rattling off the name of Jack Ham, and perhaps you throw in Bryan Hinkle before getting to Lloyd, Greene, Gildon, Joey Porter, Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

  • You never stop to mention the name “Carlos Emmons.”

But that’s beside the point. In the spring and summer of 1996, Carlos Emmons looked like a throwaway pick 7th round picks, just as many pundits have already written Keion Adams as a throwaway 7th round picks.

But Emmons never looked at himself that way, nor did the Steelers. He never blossomed into a star, but had a decent run in Pittsburgh, and overall had a decent NFL career. Fortunately for Kion Adams, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter will have him a chance to do the same.

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The Colbert Record: Grading the Steelers 2012 Draft, B-

The with 2017 NFL Draft in the books, it is now time to turn our attention to grading Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s performance with the Steelers draft class.

  • Of course, we’re talking about grading the Steelers 2012 Draft Class here.

The question of when a draft class is ripe to grade is an interesting one with no definitive answer. Same day draft grade border on inane, as Ike Taylor and the Steelers 2003 Draft Class demonstrates. Year after draft grades certainly aren’t much more helpful either.

After the rookie years of Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave, the Steelers 2016 Draft Class is looking pretty smart. But the same could be said in May 1990 about the 1989 Steelers Draft class, which had its gems but also a lot of fools gold.

The Steelers 2011 Draft Class seems to make a solid case for why you really need to wait five years to grade a draft class, and while others may quibble, we’ll stick with it grade the Steelers 2012 Draft Class.

David DeCastro, Steelers 2012 Draft Class grades, DeAngelo Williams

David DeCastro lines up in front of DeAngelo Williams in 2015 as the Bengals visit Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Pittsburgh CBS Local

Steelers 2012 First Round Pick – David DeCastro, Guard, Stanford

When a highly rated prospect falls in the first round of the NFL Draft, it usually for two reason. First, some sort of off the field issue, be it true or not, surfaces and prospective buyers shy away. Second, sometimes one team will make an unexpected pick or trade scrambling everyone else’s draft board.

Going in to the 2012 NFL Draft, David DeCastro had been rated very highly, some experts had him in the top then. But then a run started on defensive lineman, and DeCastro continued to fall. The Steelers didn’t hesitate to pick DeCastro, and haven’t looked back since.

David DeCastro started as a rookie, although he lost most of that season ton injury, but was a full time starter by 2013. By 2014, DeCastro was establishing himself as a force on the field, and showing that streak of nasty that makes offensive lineman great. By 2015, David DeCastro had done well enough to see the Steelers exercise their 5th year option on him and eventually sign him to a long term deal.

For what it is worth, the NFL Network is rating DeCastro as the 97th best player in the league. Grade: Quality Value Pick (trending toward Grand Slam).

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2012 Second Round Pick – Mike Adams, Tackle, Ohio State

Mike Adams provides the perfect example of a player who fell for kind of reason. In his case it was a failed drug test at the NFL Combine. The Steelers knew about this, and took them off their board because of it.

  • Mike Adams of course worked his way back into the good graces of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers took him admitting that there are risks with every pick. The easy evaluation, based on the disaster that was Mike Adams starting at left tackle, is that the Mike Adams pick was a bust. That’s a tempting conclusion to take, but it is not quite accurate.

  • People forget that Mike Adams started 6 games (per Pro Football Reference’s count) at right tackle in 2012 and played fairly well.

HE also made four starts at right tackle in 2014 and again he performed well. 2015 was lost to injury. OK, if you pick a man in the a tackle in the second round, and you project him as a left tackle, you expect more than 10 good starts at right tackle out of the player.

But the Steelers did get some value out of Mike Adams, it just wasn’t enough. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2012 Third Round Pick – Sean Spence, Inside Linebacker, Miami

This pick perhaps illustrates just how much of a factor luck plays in forming a successful NFL Draft. The Steelers drafted Sean Spence with an eye towards replacing Larry Foote. All indications in training camp and preseason were that Spence was capable of being that player.

  • Then disaster struck, as Sean Spence suffered what could have been a career ending injury during preseason.

The Steelers kept Spence on injured reserve for two years, and in the meantime drafted Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier. Spence returned to full health in 2014 and functioned effectively as “The Next Man” up starting 13 games over the next two years.

Steelers vs. Texans, Sean Spence

Sean Spence after forcing a fumble in the Steelers 2014 win over the Houston Texans. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

Who knows how good Sean Spence would have been had not been injured? How well would have he would have played during 2014 and 2015 had Shazier not forced him to the bench? Will never know the answer. All indications are that Colbert and Tomlin made the right pick with this selection, but unfortunately due to no one’s fault, injury prevented the Steelers from recouping its full value. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Steelers 2012 Fourth Round Pick – Alameda Ta’mau, Nose Tackle, Washington

Note to Kevin Colbert: Next time you think of trading up to grab someone in one of the middle rounds, don’t pick a guy that is getting KOed on highlight films by your first round pick.

Because that’s exactly what the Steelers did in 2012 when they traded up to get the “last pure nose tackle in the draft” even though one of David DeCastro’s highlight reels included him totally dominating
Alameda Ta’mau.

That didn’t stop some pundits from predicting that Ta’Mau would become Casey Hampton’s heir apparent. Instead Ta’Mau became best known for his South Side drunken rampage, where only by the grace of God no one got seriously injured.

The Steelers didn’t cut him immediately, but he was gone by year’s end without playing a down and played in 14 games for Pittsburgh West over the next two season. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2012 Fifth Round Pick – Chris Rainey, Running Back, Florida

Unlike Ta’Mau who had a previous alcohol incident that the Steelers knew of but was not public knowledge, Chris Raniey brought a checkered history to Pittsburgh. However, the Pouncey family vouched for Rainey and the Steelers gave him a chance.

  • Chris Rainey was supposed to be a utility back for the Steelers – a small speedy back who could come out of the flat to spread the field.

As a running back Rainey saw spot duty in 2012 and had a respectable rushing average, and he also caught 14 passes on 22 targets which is also respectable, although he never showed any of that field stretching ability. Rainey had a minor run in with the law late in the season, and then his name popped up in the police blotter for domestic violence in January.

The Steelers cut their losses immediately and sent Rainey packing. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2012 Seventh Round Pick, A – Toney Clemons, Wide Receiver, Colorado

Toney Clemons never caught on with the Steelers, but he did play four games in 2012 for the Jacksonville Jaguars and was never heard from again. Grade: Farm Team

Steelers 2012 Seventh Round Pick, B – David Paulson, Tight End, Oregon

Fans will remember David Paulson for his dropped pass in the Steelers road loss to the Bengals in the second game of the 2013 Steelers 0-4 start. And yes he should have caught that, and yes it could have been a difference maker.

  • But David Paulson was a number 4 TE playing as a number 2 TE.

All told, David Paulson had 13 catches on 21 targets over 32 games for the Steelers. Those are hardly Mike Mularkey numbers, let alone Heath Miller type stats. But not bad production from the 240th man taken in the draft. Grade: Quality Value Pickup

Steelers 2012 Seventh Round Pick, C — Terrence Frederick, Cornerback, Texas A&M

Terrence Frederick never made caught on with the Steelers but played 5 games in 2012 and 2014 for the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints. Again, not for a 7th round pick and not a bad way to pocket six figures before starting your “Life’s Work.” Grade: Farm Team

Steelers 2012 Seventh Round Pick, D – Kelvin Beachum, Tackle, SMU

If most NFL General Managers would be forced to confess, when they get to the 248th pick of the draft they’re probably thinking, “If this works out well, he’ll land on the practice squad.” You don’t pick a man that late and expect him to play seven games for you that year, let alone start 5.

Yet that’s what Kelvin Beachum did for the Steelers as a rookie. There weren’t many bright spots for the Steelers offense on the backend of 2012, with Ben Roethlisberger’s injury to Young Money going broke, to the three headed implosion at running back.

But Kelvin Beachum was a true bright spot for the Steelers, as he went on to save the Steelers season in 2013 by stepping in at left tackle, and established himself as a legit starting left tackle in 2014. Grade: Grand Slam

Steelers vs. Chargers, Kelvin Beachum, Kelvin Beachum right tackle

Kelvin Beachum starting for the Steelers vs. the Chargers in late 2012. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive.com

Grading the Steelers 2012 Draft

Only David DeCastro remains of the Steelers 2012 Draft Class and by many measure’s that’s bad, because in theory this is when your draft picks should in their prime, hitting their stride. And when that happens, a team wins. See the roles the Steelers 2002 Draft Class played in winning Super Bowl XL.

  • But the 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement’s rookie salary cap altered that calculus a bit.

By essentially mandating that every NFL team devote the same portion of his salary cap on its draft class, it raised the marginal value of the production a team gets out of its draft picks during their rookie contracts.

Viewed in that light, the Steelers got excellent value out of David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum. They also got solid contributions from the Sean Spence and even got “Something” out of Mike Adams and David Paulson. Unfortunately are weighed down by the loss of value of Ta’amu and Rainey and the draft pick they used to get Ta’Amu.

All told, Steelers 2012 Draft Class had a “Good But…” quality to it, and that’s why we’re grading out with a B-.

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Steelers Emphasize Character in 2017 Draft Class

The more I read about the Steelers 2017 Draft Class, especially the premium picks —T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and James Conner–I couldn’t help but notice continual key words and phrases such as “hardworking,” selfless character,” “high-character,” “great player, but an even better person,” etc. etc.

And that conspiracy had to do with the quality of character of most if not all of the eight new draft picks who will try to make a career for themselves as members of the black and gold. Draft weekends are usually love-fests, complete with hugs from family and friends for the draftees, along with high-praise from the people who drafted them.

TJ Watt, Art Rooney II,

Steelers 1st round draft pick TJ Watt with Art Rooney II. Photo Credit: KDKA

But often there are also character concerns about certain players who are drafted and make you wonder if those concerns will hinder or totally derail their development.

Thursday night, when the Steelers time on the first round clock commenced, Reuben Foster, an inside linebacker from Alabama and a top ten overall prospect, was sitting there for the taking.

Obviously, outside linebacker was the more pressing need for the Steelers heading into the draft, but Foster offered great value at pick number 30 and perhaps could have been the replacement for Lawrence Timmons, who signed with the Dolphins as a free-agent in March.

  • But like the 29 teams before them, the Steelers passed on Foster, who was ultimately selected by the 49ers one spot later.

So, why not just scoop up one of the premiere talents in the draft–what’s general manager Kevin Colbert always say about picking the best player available?

  • Unfortunately, even the best players can’t help a team if they’re not on the field.

It’s debatable as to who the most talented receiver of the 2014 NFL Draft was, but if you want to throw your name behind Martavis Bryant, it would be really hard to argue with you.

But there were concerns about Martavis Bryant’s character and work-ethic at Clemson, and this caused him to slip into the fourth round of that draft. And after a stellar rookie season, in-which he caught 26 passes for 549 yards and eight touchdowns in just 10 games, Martavis Bryant was suspended for the first month of the 2015 regular season for failing a drug test in the offseason.

After an even better 2015 season, when he caught 50 passes for 765 yards in just 11 games, Bryant failed multiple drug tests and was suspended for all of 2016.

And that brings me back to Ruben Foster, who not only failed a drug test at the combine in February, he was sent home after having a verbal altercation with a medical worker.

Are these horrific offenses and should they ruin a talented player’s career? On the surface, no.

But times, they are a changing. Think of Rod Woodson.

  • Rod Woodson was one of the best players in Steelers history and arguably their greatest cornerback, (well, Mel Blount was probably better.)

But before his career really hit its stride, Woodson was arrested multiple times for various offenses. Back then, not only didn’t Woodson miss any games, he was named the 1993 NFL Defensive Player of the Year not long after his last arrest.

Thankfully, Rod Woodson matured into a person whose character matched his talents on the field and went on to have a Hall of Fame career.

Today, with social media and the 24/7 news-cycle, not to mention the public scrutiny the NFL has faced in recent years because of multiple off-field issues for several of its players, one has to wonder if someone even with Rod Woodson’s enormous talents would have survived just one arrest without it ruining his career.

So, does high character always equal success on the football field? No, but high character is often a great barometer for determining if a player will stay on the football field long enough to get the most out of his abilities.

The Steelers just drafted a group of young players whose football futures will likely be decided on talent and not on off-field issues.

 

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Does Steelers 2017 Draft Class Display Kevin Colbert’s Confidence or Cockiness?

NFL teams don’t draft in a vacuum. Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys in 1989 and Chuck Noll’s Steelers in 1969 serve as exceptions, but only expansion teams get a blank slate.

The choices those men make tell us a lot about how they see their respective teams. The Steelers 2017 Draft Class certainly qualifies.

Steelers 2017 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin

Kevin Colbert & Mike Tomlin during the 2017 NFL Draft

Let’s look at the context in which Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin assembled the Steelers 2017 Draft class.

After going 8-8 and out of the playoffs for two straight years, the Steelers made the playoffs in 2014, only to get booted by the Ravens at Heinz Field. A year later the Steelers discipline lifted them over the Bengals on the road, and then saw a short-handed team fall just shy of beating Denver on the road. In 2016 the Steelers won their first two playoff games, only to get shredded by New England in the AFC Championship.

Diagnosing what ailed the Steelers in New England is quite simple:

  • The Steelers couldn’t pressure Tom Brady
  • Tom Brady used the time Pittsburgh gave to him to decimate the Steelers secondary
  • Pittsburgh lacked a receiving target capable of taking heat off of Antonio Brown
  • When Le’Veon Bell went down, the Steelers struggled to run the ball effectively

With those bitter memories in mind, let’s review the Steelers 2017 Draft Class in the order they were picked:

1. TJ Watt, Outside Linebacker, Wisconsin
2. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver, USC
3 a. Cam Sutton, Cornerback, Tennessee
3 b. James Conner, Running Back, Pitt
4. Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Tennesse
5. Brian Allen, Cornerback, Utah
6. Colin Holba, Long Snapper, Louisville
7. Keion Adams, Outside Linebacker, Western Michigan

In the 2017 NFL Draft the Steelers immediately applied their premium picks towards addressing each of those pain points the Patriots so gleefully exploited. The Steelers thinking is clear:

  • James Harrison isn’t going to outrace father time forever, so they draft in TJ Watt
  • Neither Martavis Bryant nor Sammie Coates have proven their reliability, so they draft JuJu Smith-Schuster
  • The Steelers need a 3rd corner and DBs capable of manning up, hence Cam Sutton
  • Pittsburgh’s chronic inability to keep two starter-capable running backs healthy easily explains the Jimmy Conners pick.

After that, things got fuzzy fast.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Gerry Dulac, never a journalist wont to hyperbole offered this on Twitter:

Dulac could have added 5th round pick Nathaniel Adibi whom Bill Cowher allegedly insisted on drafting over Marcus Turner. Of the fivesome, only two played in the NFL, and only Matt Kranchick played a down for the Steelers (1 catch for 6 yards, but it was a heck of a catch….)

In rapid fire, the Steelers drafted quarterback Joshua Dobbs, cornerback Brian Allen, long snapper (yes, you’d hopped the “LS” on you saw on ESPN’s draft crawl as a typo, didn’t you?)
Colin Holba and finally Keion Adams.

On the surface it appears, the Steelers devoted the top half of the draft addressing their most urgent needs, and then Colbert and Tomlin spent the rest on luxury picks. With the benefit of a few days of perspective, let’s see if that’s the case.

Does Steelers 2017 Draft Class Indicate Colbert’s Confidence, or Cockiness?

The Joshua Dobbs pick was the first one that Steel Curtain Rising took issue with.

Dobbs, by all accounts is a solid pickup in the 4th round, but at the time the Steelers still had more pressing needs at inside linebacker and perhaps tight end. However, their subsequent decision to release Zach Mettenberger explains a lot.

The Steelers had 20 weeks to workout Mettenberger work, and they clearly they saw enough. If they don’t think he’ll be ready to challenge Landry Jones for the right to backup Ben Roethlisberger in 2017, its best to invest salary cap dollars in someone who will do it in 2018.

  • Looking at the other picks, however, it is hard not to recall Art Rooney Jr.’s reflections on the late 1970’s.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were of course a drafting juggernaut during the first half of the 70’s, only to see the quality of their drafts drop off a cliff as the decade closed. It’s easy to chalk that decline up to lousy draft position, but the 49er’s of the 80’s and the Patriots of his century have shown winning championships and quality drafting can go hand-in-hand.

  • Tension between Rooney Jr. and Noll, and moving the draft into spring hurt the Steelers.

But the Steelers also hurt themselves. With their roster laden with Super Bowl veterans, they got away from taking the best player on the board, an instead tried to identify and then draft players who fell for one reason or another. Looking at the latter picks of the Steelers 2017 Draft Class, it’s tempting to wonder if Colbert and Tomlin aren’t succumbing to the same temptation.

Cornerback Brian Allen, Carnell Lake assured us, would have been drafted higher had he played defense for more than two seasons in college. Colin Holba was one of the few “draftable long snappers” in this draft, so the Steelers took him. And those who roll their eyes at the concept of a “draftable long snapper” Bill Belichick drafted a long snapper with a fifth round pick in 2014 and won a Super Bowl. Keion Adams is a guy who has “really developed over the last few years.”

  • Fair enough. But these Steelers lack the pedigree of their 70’s predecessors and their Patriots contemporaries.

No one can argue that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t address the Steelers most pressing needs with their first four picks of the 2017 NFL Draft. Colbert and Tomlin draft choices also represent a tacit endorsement of Vince Williams, Ladarius Green and Jesse James.

In a word, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin with the confidence that indicates that the Pittsburgh Steelers really are only a couple of three players away from winning the Super Bowl. So be it.

  • Regular readers know that Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t do post-day draft grades.

The Steelers 2017 Draft Class will be graded by the same criteria used to grade their 2016 draft class – whether this group of players helps Ben Roethlisberger bring home Lombardi Number Seven before he begins his “Life’s Work.”

If that happens, then Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert will get an “A” for this draft, regardless of whether any of their Day 3 picks ever play a down in the NFL.

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ICYMI Steelers Draft Colin Holba, Long Snapper, in 6th Round (Yes, a Long Snapper)

The 6th round of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft Colin Holba, long snapper from Louisville.

And, no ladies and gentleman, if you didn’t spend the weekend glued to your TV or social media feed, that’s not a misprint. The Steelers spent a 6th round pick on a long snapper.

Steelers draft long snapper Colin Holba, Colin Holba

Steelers draft Colin Holba in 6th round, Long Snapper from Louisville. Photo Credit: Beaver County Times

The move created a firestorm on Twitter, from fans and pundits alike.

Later, admitting he was jesting, Jim Wexell offered this as a justification even after he’d learned that Steelers management does have concerns about Greg Warren’s durability:

Indeed, Kevin Colbert felt that Colin Holba was a “draftable” long snapper, so the Steelers took him. In case you’re wondering, draft analysts do rate long snappers, at least a few of them.

Writing on Steel City Insider, Jim Wexell quoted the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Bob McGinn who rated three long snappers going into the draft and rated Holba clearly above the rest of the pack.

Here in 2017, even Long Snappers have their own draft highlight reels:

If you’re like me, you’re still more than skeptical about drafting a long snapper in any round. Fair enough. But let’s close with a little wisdom from Jim Wexell:

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Steelers Draft Brian Allen in 5th Round, Amidst Familiar Carnell Lake Refrain

The 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Pittsburgh Steelers draft Brian Allen a cornerback from Utah.

Brian Allen was the second cornerback the Steelers took in this draft, after taking Cam Sutton with their first pick in the 3rd round of the Draft. Since drafting Senquez Golson in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft, the Steelers have taken 4 cornerbacks in the last 3 drafts.

  • At 6’3” and weighing in at 215 pounds Allen represents the larger cornerback that the Steelers used to seek for their defense.

However, Brian Allen is a converted wide out who only has two years under his belt at corner, and one year as a starter. That college track record mirrors that of 1st round pick T.J. Watt, but unlike Watt, Allen’s combine times however were a little wanting.

Steelers draft Brian Allen, Brian Allen

Steelers 5th round pick Brian Allen intercepts a pass for Utah. Photo Credit: via USA Today’s SteelersWire.com

Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake didn’t address Allen’s measurable but did suggest “I think with some more games under his belt, he probably would’ve been drafted a lot higher.”

If that sounds familiar, it should. After the Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas in 2013 and Senquez Golson in 2015 Carnell Lake suggested that had both men been two inches taller they’d have been 1st round picks.

Welcome to 2017 ladies and gentleman, where even 6th round picks have their own highlight reels prepared for them.

The Steelers selection of Brian Allen adds him to a depth chart which includes starters Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, veteran William Gay, Senquez Golson, Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Sutton and Al-Hajj Shabazz. Even if William Gay makes the rumored transition to safety, Brian Allen’s best bet is probably the practice squad.

That’s not a bad way to cut your teeth as a future Pittsburgh Steeler, as Chris Hoke, Jordan Dangerfield Steve McLendon and James Harrison can attest to. Welcome to Steelers Nation Brian Allen.

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Steelers Draft Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Tennessee – The “Shouldn’t Have Been” Surprise

“Steelers Draft Josh Dobbs, in 4th round, quarterback, Tennessee.”

Raise your hand if you were both surprised and dumbfounded by the Steelers 4th round draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. (Mine’s raised.)

Raise your hand if you felt the Steelers had far more pressing needs to address with a pick as valuable as a 4th round draft selection. (Mine’s raised.)

Raise your hand if you felt that, given Ben Roethlisberger’s sentiments towards retirement, you felt that ALL of the Steelers 2017 draft capital should be devoted giving ben the weapons and players need to bring home one last Lombardi before Big Ben begins his “Life’s Work.” (Mine is STILL raised.)

  • If you’re hand has been raised, then you’ve likely got a lot of company in Steelers Nation.
Steelers draft Josh Dobbs, Joshua Dobbs

Steelers 2017 4th round pick Joshua Dobbs, former Tennessee Volunteer. Photo Credit: Jamie Squire, Getty Images

But you know what? All of us should have known this was coming back in January. Why argue that? Look no further than to the words of Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II who declared, “We haven’t drafted a quarterback for several years now, so we’re probably due to look at the position.”

  • While the Steelers President didn’t quite commit to anything, there’s also not a lot of ambiguity in Art II’s words.

As Observer-Reporter scribe Dale Lolley put those words into context for his readers, offering, “The Steelers will likely take a shot at a quarterback in the middle rounds of this year’s draft, much like they did with Jones a few years ago.”

Which is exactly what happened.

  • Let’s be clear, given the Steelers needs at inside linebacker and tight end, Steel Curtain Rising isn’t on board with using a 4th round pick on a quarterback.

But, as we’ve admitted more than once in recent days, there’s a reason why Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are drafting players, and yours truly is blogging. After the Steelers disastrous 2008 NFL Draft, the one player that this site took issue with was the pick of Dennis Dixon.

And while it’s true that Dennis Dixon never developed into the replacement quarterback for Charlie Batch, he did compile a 2-1 record as a starter, which isn’t bad for a 5th round pick.

Reviewing the Steelers Pick of Josh Dobbs on Its Merits

Necessary or not, Josh Dobbs is now a Pittsburgh Steeler. Dobbs brings the Steelers a 22-13 record, and combines strong arm strength with excellent mobility and an ability to throw well under pressure. While at Tennessee, Dobbs also earned a degree in Astrospace Engineering, which is not something you see every day in the NFL.

As Dobbs highlight reel reveals, excellent football players can indeed by smart:

When asked why he’s subjecting his body (and potentially his mind) to the rigors of playing football, Dobbs offered this:

I love the game of football. I have loved it since I played it when I was five. My mom signed me up at five years old, when we were running around in helmets bigger than your body. Football is all I know. Going to college, I could have played football or baseball, but I chose football because that was the sport I couldn’t see myself not playing. I love the game. I give it all, every time I step onto the field. It’s great to have a backup plan for 15 years down the road when I can’t play football. But until that day, I am giving it all to the sport I love.

When ask for his take on the Steelers 2017 fourth round selection Neal Coolong, Founder of NFL Wire Network which is part of USA Today Digital Properties, provided this evaluation:

Joshua Dobbs is a nice prospect. I see more in him than I did or do Landry Jones. Brings a nice athletic element. Forces competition for Landry Jones’s job next year, the final year of his contract, and they’d have him cheap for two years after that. While I can’t say overall I’m thrilled with the position they selected, I don’t mind Dobbs in the fourth.

So be it. Like it or not, the Steelers made Joshua Dobbs their 4th round pick. As noted a year ago when evaluating Kevin Colbert’s history with 4th round draft picks, the 4th round represents the balance point of the draft.

In time, we’ll know which direction Joshua Dobbs will go in. For now we’ll simply say Welcome to Steelers Nation Mr. Dobbs.

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Hometown Hero Homecoming: Steelers Draft James Conner in 3rd Round, RB Pitt

The close of day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft James Conner running back from Pitt with their third round compensatory selection.

  • Fans will remember that the Steelers made a similar move with their 3rd round compensatory selection in the 2014 NFL Draft when they took Dri Archer.

Dir Archer turned out to be a veritable head case, but the Steelers can rest assured that James Conner won’t follow in his footsteps. It remains to be seen if Conner can deliver in the NFL, but the man’s character and work ethic are above reproach, as he bounced back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015 to lead the Pitt Panthers rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016.

Steelers draft James Conner, James Conner, 2017 NFL Draft

Steelers 3rd round draft pick James Conner rushed for 3,733 yards and 52 TD’s at Pitt. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

Steelers running backs coach James Saxon insisted that Conner wasn’t a sentimental or character pick and James Connor’s highlight reel from Pitt backs him up:

Hearing his name called by the Pittsburgh Steelers is a dream come true for Connor, who in addition to being a standout for Pitt, is an Erie native who played at McDowell High School.

James Connor will provide an immediate boost to a running back depth chart that has struggled to keep two starting caliber running backs healthy since the 2011 season. Le’Veon Bell will remain the uncontested starter, but after Bell the Steelers only have Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis behind him, a duo whose collective yards-per-carry average is 3.15.

James Conner described getting drafted by his hometown team as:

It’s a dream come true. I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunity after everything I’ve been through. I know a lot of teams were scared, but they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and they are going to get a great person and a great football player, and I’ll give it my all for them.

The Steelers were expected to go for a running back early in the 2017 NFL Draft and Conner’s third round selection all but confirms what has been obvious for a while, DeAngelo Williams is not in Pittsburgh’s plans for 2017.

  • By drafting James Conner on the third round the Steelers revived what had once been a robust franchise tradition: Giving Pitt Panthers the possibility to play in the NFL.

The Steelers have drafted over 46 players from the University of Pittsburgh, but have not taken a Panther in the NFL Draft since choosing Hank Poteat in the 2000 NFL Draft.

That’s a far cry from the 1980’s, when the Steelers took 6 Pitt Players in the draft, including 3 in the 1989 NFL Draft in the form of Tom Ricketts, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig who was a Pitt-Johnstown graduate.

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3rd Time the Charm? Steelers Draft Cam Sutton in 3rd Round, Cornerback from Tennessee

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Cam Sutton in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, adding the cornerback from Tennessee to a secondary desperate need of depth at corner.

  • Cornerback has been at the top of the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix seemingly every season since the Steelers loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

Slow development and salary cap miscalculations (see letting Keenan Lewis walk in favor of counting on Cortez Allen) attempts to get by with waiver wire pickups (see Antwon Blake), late draft picks (see Trent Hawthorne) and just plain bad luck (Senquez Golson) have created this seemingly chronic need at cornerback.

Cam Sutton, Steelers draft Cam Sutton, Steelers 2017 3rd round pick Cam Sutton

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 3rd round pick Cam Sutton

While Steelers 1st round pick from the 2016 draft Artie Burns did have a strong second half to his rookie year, the Steelers still need help at corner.

According to Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake, Cam Sutton brings Pittsburgh:

Cameron is a press corner and plays close to the line of scrimmage but can also play off. He does a good job of mirroring the receiver. He stays close, and that shows in his productivity as a corner for Tennessee over the years in his career. He has led his team and is the all-time leader in passes defensed for Tennessee. He knows how to cover, he stays close, and that is something that we’ve been looking for in the draft. In the third round, he was available and that’s why we took him.

Cam Sutton stands at 5-11 1/4, weighs 188 pounds, but has short 30-inch arms and a 4.52 40 time, which explains why he stayed on the bard so long. At the NFL Combine he only benched only 11 times but did post Combine workouts saw him post decent numbers in the vertical jump (34), broad jump (10-0) and 3-cone (6.81). His shuttle time of 4.23 is acceptable.

Here is what his highlight tape tells us:

As you can see, he also has experience returning punts, so perhaps the Steelers can finally send someone other than Antonio Brown out there.

Cam Sutton brings the Steelers a wealth of experience, having started for four straight seasons for the Tennessee Volunteers, playing as their team captain during his senior year. Leadership is another asset which he can potentially bring to the Steelers secondary, as indicated by his response to the question of whether he sees himself as a coach on the field:

Most definitely. I was voted captain my senior year, but that leadership role is something I embraced over time in my four years in college. Usually when I first start off in a new area or team, I kind of want to sit back and observe the guys that are around me and kind of get a feel for the personalities. But I am a guy that seeks out those guys, and I have a different way of talking to people. Not every player you’re able to talk to the same way. I’m able to decipher those guys. Some you can harp on, some you have to pull to the side. I’m able to do that. Whatever gets the guys going the right direction helps us all be successful.

By picking Cam Sutton in the third round the Steelers have set themselves up for a traning camp competition at cornerback. Artie Burn and Ross Cockrell will open camp as starters, with William Gay probably penciled in as their slot corner, assuming the Steelers do not move Gay to safety.

Sutton will have a shot to compete with Senquez Golson and Coty Sensabaugh for right to challenge Gay for the nickleback position.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Cam Sutton.

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