Watch Tower: Gabe Rivera-Ryan Shazier Connection, 2018 & 2003 Draft, OLB Swap & More

The Pittsburgh Steelers true 2018 off season is here. Now’s when millennials in Steelers Nation get a feel for what January to July used to be like every year until free agency arrived in 1993.

Barring an off the field trouble, they’ll be no Steelers news until late July, so the Watch Tower turns its lights Steelers stories including the 2018 NFL Draft, draft room stories from both today and yesteryear finally seeing the light, the mystery that is Mike Tomlin the OLB shift and much more.

But first let’s turn to a story that’s sat there patiently waiting to be told for close to six months.

Gabe Rivera, Gabriel Rivera, Steelers 1983 draft

Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Rivera watching Steelers practice in 1983. Photo Credit: John Heller, Pittsburgh Press via Post-Gazette.com

Of Rivera and Shazier – Bouchette Delivers

Ryan Shazier has been the biggest Steelers story since December. The image of Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion is seared in our collective memory, and nearly every story written about the Steelers has a link, direct or indirect, to that fateful night.

  • And of course Shazier’s story draws inevitable comparisons to Gabe Rivera.

Gabe Rivera is the defensive lineman Chuck Noll drafted while passing on Dan Marino, assuming that he could get his next Terry Bradshaw later in hopes of getting his next Joe Greene in 1983. Not only did Pittsburgh have to wait until Ben Roethlisberger’s arrival 20 years later for its next franchise quarterback, but Gabe Rivera’s NFL career lasted 6 games, after a car accident left Rivera paralyzed.

  • However, if Steelers fans hear a lot about Gabe Rivera, they hear very little from Gabe Rivera.

Steelers Digest did do a profile on Rivera in the early 1990’s. But you don’t see photos of him at Steelers alumni events, you don’t see him at Steelers training camp as an example of why players need to make wise choices (Rivera had been driving while intoxicated) and you don’t see reporters calling him for quotes.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette changed that this May, by reaching out to Gabe Rivera, to ask him about Shazier, find out how he doing and shed light as to why Steelers fan never hear from him. The Watch Tower doesn’t steal other writer’s thunder, but highly recommends Bouchtte’s article.

The story may have been sitting there in plain sight, but Bouchette went out and told it and for that he wins Watch Tower Kudos.

Who Is Mike Tomlin?

Just who is “Mike Tomin?” Undefeated writer Tom Junod sought an answer reminding readers that “The Steelers head coach has been celebrated and derided but rarely understood.”

Like all NFL coaches, Mike Tomlin has a private side, a side remains hidden when the cameras are running (Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live feed notwithstanding.)

  • But Mike Tomlin takes it to another level.

In the spring after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, a Pittsburgh journalist privately told the Watch Tower, something on order of, “I think Mike Tomlin’s a selling himself short as a football coach. He’s such a great leader, he should be a Senator or the President of a company or something like that….”

Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, December 2017. Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post-Gazette

Certainly, there was a lot of love for Tomlin that spring, but that’s not something even the most diehard Tomlin homer would have said. The difference? This journalist had seen Tomlin without the camera’s rolling.

  • Yet Tomlin’s on-the-record interaction with the public remains sparse, by design.

During the season Tomlin speaks with the press less than his contemporaries; even Bill Belichick interacts with the media more frequently. He doesn’t talk to reporters in the off season, except when required. Ed Bouchette shared that he once asked Tomlin to do a non-required press conference earning the retort, “It doesn’t get ME anything.”

  • Tom Junod set out lift the veil surrounding Mike Tomlin in a 6,000 plus word essay.

Junod traveled to Pittsburgh three times and was with the team training prior to the Pro Bowl. During that time Junod talked to, or at least secured quotes from strength and conditioning coach Garrett Giemont, Pittsburgh pastor Ed Glover, former Tomlin coach Bill Stewart, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Tony Dungy, Joe Haden, Le’Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, Mike Mitchell, Cam Heyward and Ryan Clark.

  • Yet, for all his efforts, Tom Junod couldn’t convince Tomlin to give an interview, let alone a quote aside from “I got nothing for you.”

Despite that, Junod’s writing is certainly worth reading. While he may have failed to unravel the mystery (or non-mystery as those who work with him daily insist) that is Mike Tomlin, Jundo certainly validates the premise that there is much more to Mike Tomlin than what the public sees and that Tomlin wants it that way.

Insight into Steelers Draft War Room, Past and Present

Is ESPN’s Jermey Fowler a Watch Tower reader? The odds are against it, but he has nonetheless been answering our pleas. Three years ago, the Watch Tower lamented the dearth of stories that provided insight into the Steelers draft process, drawing a contrast with the rich narrative that surrounds the Steelers drafts of the 70’s.

Troy Polamalu, touchdown, AFC Championship, pick six, touchdown

Troy Polamalu’s AFC Championship Touchdown

This year Fowler delivered again with an article on the Troy Polamalu trade. As with his article on Brown, Fowler didn’t have much luck getting current Steelers employees to discuss the trade, but he still shed new light on one of the most consequential draft-day trades in Steelers history.

  • Once again, Fowler wins Watch Tower kudos.

Fast forwarding today, the Steelers 2018 draft class was conspicuous for its lack of an inside linebacker. This move came as a surprise to many, and is still being debated. However, readers of Pittsburgh Steelers 24/7 were probably less surprised, thanks to Jim Wexell’s analysis.

Wexell reminded readers “Steelers GM Kevin Colbert doesn’t say much to reporters, but when he does he tells the truth,” and then pointed to Colbert’s comments to Steelers Nation Radio which clearly indicated the General Manager’s low opinion of the inside linebacker depth in the past draft.

So when the Steelers failed to trade up in the first round, the fact that they focused the rest of their draft elsewhere falls into place. Perhaps other reporters behind paywalls that the Watch Tower isn’t privy to made similar observations, but Wexell’s was right on the money, nearly 6 weeks before the draft.

Split on OLB Shift Story

The decision to swap Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt from right to left OLB is the few bits of true news to come out of Steelers OTAs. Dale Lolley had Jim Wexell had indicated to their readers that this move was coming early in the off season, and addition reporting by Wexell during OTA’s suggests the move is permanent.

  • Ed Bouchette’s reporting, however, takes the story in a different direction, indicating that the two players may shift to different sides of the line during the season, depending on circumstances.

Either way the Watch Tower will be looking to see who is right and award its kudos accordingly.

Wrap Up: World Cup, Bryant Trade and Running Back by Committee

In light of Martavis Bryant facing yet another suspension, Ron Cook of the Post Gazette stepped forward and issued a mea cupla, saying he was wrong to criticize the trade. Reporters do that less than they should, so Cook gets some kudos for his honestly.

  • As mentioned at the top of this article, trying to find real Steelers news to print at this time of year is a challenge.

Sure, you can “re-package” things like taking a Bob Labriola answer to a question about alternatives the Steeles didn’t consider for their 2018 throwbacks and turn it into an article, but is that really offering value to eaders?

Or you can do a deep dive into just how complicated it is to execute running back by committee as Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review did. Or you can likewise try to find a local, Steelers link to World Cup mania by publishing an article on the passing of Matt Bahr‘s father, Walter Bahr, who played on the 1950 US World Cup team that upset England.

Providing value at this time of the year can be hard, yet Benz and an unnamed AP writer did just that, and earn Watch Tower kudos.

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Steelers Jerald Hawkins Tears Quad in OTA’s, Could Miss Season

Sometimes, life is simply unfair. An so it is for the Steelers Jerald Hawkins who tore a quad in non-contact drills during Steelers OTA’s and the offensive tackle could miss the 2018 season if reports of ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler are correct.

  • IF this report turns out to be true, it would be the second bit of bad luck for Hawkins.

The Steelers drafted Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. By all accounts, Hawkins was having a strong training camp and looked solid in preseason. And the door was open for Hawkins to earn a real shot at playing time, with Kelvin Beachum having departed in free agency, and the Steelers having little proven depth behind Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle.

Jerald Hawkins, Steelers 2016 4th round draft pick

Steelers 2016 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins

But in an otherwise sterling outing for the Steelers against the New Orleans Saints in preseason, Hawkins got injured and spent his rookie season on IR.

Hawkins had a more difficult time during his second summer in Latrobe, and never mounted serious challenge to unseat Chris Hubbard as the Steelers swing tackle behind Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert. However, as the season wore on, Hawkins saw spot duty as an extra tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy Package.”

The Steelers saw enough in Hawkins to let Chris Hubbard depart in free agency, although it is doubtful that Pittsburgh’s salary cap situation would have allowed them to make a serious play to keep Hubbard in the Steel City.

Anyone Still Wonder Why Steelers Drafted Chukwuma Okorafor?

With all five starters playing on their second NFL contracts, and B.J. Finney and Matt Feiler having proven themselves as compotent backups, the Steelers offensive line was not considered a prime need heading into the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Yet, as the old adage goes, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

The Steelers have learned that lesson the hard way more than once in the Mike Tomlin era, but it appears it is a lesson Pittsburgh’s brain trust has taken to heart. In spite of, a need to upgrade their defense and despite having drafted James Washington and Mason Rudolph in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, the Steelers opted to draft Chukwuma Okorafor, and offensive tackle out of West Michigan with their second 3rd round pick.

In reporting on the Jerald Hawkins injury, 24/7 Sports Jim Wexell shared the observation by Marcus Gilbert that Chukwuma Okorafor is “….learning real fast. He’s probably the most ready rookie that we’ve had, talent-wise.”

Let’s hope that Chukwuma Okorafor remains a quick learner.

OTA Injuries Rare, But Not Unheard Of

OTA’s are, as Mike Tomlin loves to remind us, “Football in shorts.” Guys wear helmets but no pads and are not supposed to make contact. Yet injuries occur.

In May of 1998, Chad Scott was coming off his rookie year and while attempt to defend a Mike Tomczak pass, landed on Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf and tore his ACL, costing him the season and forcing Carnell Lake to play cornerback in his final season in Pittsburgh.

Two years ago news of Senquez Golson’s MRI caused a stir, although it was not on Golson’s previously injured shoulder, only a “lower body soft tissue injury.” No one ever linked that to the Lisfranc injury that ended the Steelers 2015 2nd round draft pick’s sophomore season, but it certainly served as a harbinger for things to come.

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The Colbert Record: Steelers 2013 Draft Grades Are In: C+ Overall

It’s time to grade the Steelers draft. No, not the Steelers 2018 Draft but rather the Steelers 2013 draft.

You know, the draft that saw the Steelers make a bold trade involving a third round pick, replace a veteran wide out and draft of a quarterback? Sounds like the Steelers 2018 draft, doesn’t it? The comparison is intentional because reinforces a fundamental lesson:

  • Accurately grading an NFL draft class takes time.

The Steelers 2018 draft class has spawned waves of criticism, while the Steelers 2013 draft class won its share of instant applause. SB Nation gave the Steelers 2013 draft an A, NFL.com  awarded it an A-.

  • Those grades don’t look so sharp today, do they?

Which doesn’t mean the Steelers 2013 Draft was a failure, but rather one that contained both failure and success as you’ll see below.

Steelers 2013 draft class, Steelers 2013 draft grades, Le'Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams

Steelers 2013 draft picks Vince Williams, Le’Veon Bell & Jarvis Jones. Photo Credit: Pininterest

Steelers 2013 1st Round – Jarvis Jones – Bust

Is there anything new to say about Jarvis Jones? There’s not much. But it is useful to remember that Bucky Brooks of NFL.com claimed Jarvis Jones was the best pick made in the entire AFC North. Mel Kiper lauded Jarvis Jones as a “great pick.”

  • Other analysts, such as Gil Brandt, remained skeptical.

The skeptics were right. The Steelers were perhaps too patient with Jarvis Jones (ah, if only James Harrison had been on the field against Dallas….) As it is, Kevin Colbert’s first and only unqualified first round bust is Jarvis Jones. Grade: Bust.

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

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2013 2nd Round – Le’Veon Bell – Grand Slam

Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated conceded that Le’Veon Bell “Fits this offense but may not have warranted pick 48.” Mel Kiper Jr. wasn’t thrilled with the Le’Veon Bell pick, but leave himself wiggle room by suggesting Bell might benefit from the Steelers line.

Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag contract squabbles have damped his popularity, but Meril Hoge hit the nail on the head when he declared Le’Veon Bell the best back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2013 3rd Round – Markus Wheaton – Serviceable Pickup

Nothing against NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, but Brooks commended the Steelers for making Markus Wheaton the AFC North’s “steal of the draft.” Markus Wheaton wasn’t a steal. “Serviceable” is a better word to describe Markus Wheaton.

  • 3rd round picks should become starters, and Markus Wheaton started 22 games his two healthy seasons with the Steelers.

He wasn’t a superstar, but in some ways Markus Wheaton’s ability to come up with clutch third down catches brought to mind Hines Ward’s early years in the trenches. But injuries marred Markus Wheaton’s rookie and 4th seasons, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed Markus Wheaton him down the stretch in 2016.

The injuries weren’t his fault, but they limited Markus Wheaton’s value to the team. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Steelers 2013 4th Round A – Shamarko Thomas – Bust

The Steelers, like the rest of the league have been more active in trading for players, but trading away future premium picks to move up in the draft goes against the Steelers DNA.

And Shamarko Thomas shows way. The Steelers traded up to get Shamarko Thomas, and Mel Kiper Jr. hailed the move as a great value add. Shamarko Thomas arrived in Pittsburgh as Troy Polamalu’s heir apparent. He departed as an afterthought.

Aside from some immediate work with the secondary during his first few rookie games, Shamarko Thomas’s defensive snap total might be countable on a single hand. Thomas was a good gunner on special teams, but players that cost you a 4th and next year’s third round pick must deliver more. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 4th Round B – Landry Jones – Quality Value Pick

The 2013 NFL Draft marked a change in the Steelers backup quarterback philosophy. The Steelers had always staffed a veteran backup quarterback since Bill Cowher’s 1992 arrival.

Picking Landry Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL draft was the product of Pittsburgh’s pivot. He wasn’t NFL ready in 2013 and or in 2014, but fought off 3 challengers at St. Vincent’s during the summer of 2015 as Landry Jones worked his way past Mike Vick for the number 2 spot and closed key victories against Arizona and Oakland in the process.

A large and vocal contingent of Steelers Nation remain hardened Landry Jones haters, but he’s worked himself into a competent NFL backup. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Steelers 2013 5th Round — Terry Hawthorne – Bust

In 20/20 hindsight, this move seems like another Steelers attempt to reload at cornerback on the cheap. But that’s not a fair assessment. Ike Taylor hadn’t shown signs of slowing in 2012, and Cortez Allen’s play late in 2012 made him appear like a stud poised to blossom.

  • And with William Gay’s return, the Steelers cornerback depth chart looked solid in the spring of 2013.

None of this changes the fact that Terry Hawthorne, Illinois the cornerback, both failed to catch on in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 6th Round A – Justin Brown – Disappointment

Justin Brown made the practice squad in 2013 which isn’t bad for a 6th round pick.

  • Word at the end of 2013 was that Justin Brown was looking good in practice.

Justin Brown made the regular season roster in 2014 and saw 21 balls thrown his way and he caught 12 of them. Still, as the Steelers closed in in the playoffs in late 2014, they deemed Brown expendable and he’s been heard from since. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2013 6th Round B – Vince Williams – Over Performer

Vince Williams experienced baptism by fire NFL style when an opening day injury to Larry Foote sent him from street clothes to starter in 3 weeks.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • And make no mistake about it, Vince Williams struggled for much of the 2013 campaign.

Yet Vince Williams improved by season’s end, and did well in relief of Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, and Lawrence Timmons during 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Steelers signed him to a contract extension in 2016 season, and year later he was starting in Timmons place.

Vince Williams isn’t an athlete who’ll compel fans to command he shift to safety. But Vince Williams is a physical player and an asset when surrounded with the right players – you don’t get 8 sacks as an inside linebacker by accident. Grade: Over Performer

Steelers 2013 7th Round – Nicholas Williams – Farm Team

On the day he was drafted, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell compared Nicholas Williams to Steve McLendon.

The Kansas City Chiefs reduced John Mitchell’s comparison to an academic one by poaching Nicholas Williams from the Steelers practice squad in 2014.

Pro football Reference tells us that Nicholas Williams made 26 appearances for the Chiefs and Dolphins from 2014 to 2016. Grade: Farm Team

Grading the Steelers 2013 Draft – C+

With 9 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers draft report card spans the spectrum, with 1 Grand Slam, 3 Busts, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Disappointment, 1 Over Performer, 1 Quality Value Pickup and 1 Farm Team pick.

  • If you agree that a good draft should yield 3 starters, then the Steelers came up OK in 2013.

The fact that within 2 years, “experts” were labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst overall drafts in recent league history only reinforces that assessment.

Yes, its true that only Vince Williams and Le’Veon Belll are starters, but Markus Wheaton was a legitimate starter when healthy, and Landry Jones was drafted to be a backup. And any draft that brings home a talent like Le’Veon Bell is by definition an “Above the Line” draft.

  • Yet, the Steelers 2013 NFL draft class was hardly an unqualified success.

The Steelers missed badly on Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas. Both of those misfires carried costly opportunity costs as forced Pittsburgh to redraft for the positions by picking Sean Davis in 2016 and T.J. Watt in 2017.

  • You can take the country from the boy, but you can’t take the boy from the country.

The part of me that was raised and reared in the US system of grading is tempted to give the Steelers 2013 Draft class a B-, “Good, but…” rating, but here in Argentina (where I’ve lived most of this century) grading is much more demanding, and so therefore I’ll give the Steelers 2013 Draft a C+.

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“Choto” Ben Roethlisberger’s Remarks on Mason Rudolph Summed Up in Porteño Spanish

An advantage of living long abroad enough to truly understand its language and culture is that you discover some languages are better equipped to express concepts than others.

For example English has “the wind chill factor” and “the heat index” whereas Spanish has la sensacion termica which communicates both concepts with better economy and accuracy. It is certainly a two way street, as Spanish has no equivalent for “parallel park.”

  • This ties into Steelers football because a recent WhatsApp chat in the Steelers Argentina group concluded that Ben Roethlisberger’s remarks on Mason Rudolph were “Choto.”

Attentive readers will remember “Choto” appeared on this site last September when staff writer Gustavo Vallegos aka El Dr. de Acero used it to describe the bubble screens Todd Haley seemed so intent on throwing to Martavis Bryant.

Yannick Ngakoue, Ben Roethlisberger, Ngakoue Roethlisberger sack, Steelers vs Jaguars, Steelers Jaguars Playoffs

Yannick Ngakoue sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Steelers.com, Karl Roser

At the time we presented it as an example of how Argentine football fans were taking ownership of their corner of the sport by applying the local slang.

  • Today we use it because the example really brings the idiomatic meaning of “choto” to life.

“Choto” is of course an artifact of Argentine lunfardo or slang an refers literally to, ah, um… how you would describe a certain part of the male anatomy that is either too small or comes up short at inopportune times. Harsh though it may be, it accurately describes Ben Roethlisberger’s reaction to Steelers drafting of Mason Rudolph.

Before delving into why, let’s give Ben the benefit of the doubt.

Giving Ben the Benefit of the Doubt. For the Moment

Roethlisberger doesn’t enjoy the threat of being made redundant his job, and in that respect he is no different than you and I. Take things a step further. An NFL quarterback is ultimate alpha male in pro sports.

  • Alpha males, by instinct, do not share.

Moreover, in football, it is impossible for quarterbacks to “share.” There’s no way Mike Tomlin can platoon two quarterbacks the way Bill Cowher paired Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker. Nor can Randy Fichtner develop an no equivalent to the Ray MansfieldMike Webster rotation that Chuck Noll employed.

  • So, to a certain degree, a franchise quarterback welcoming his would-be successor with less than open arms is actually a healthy sign.

A quarterback with a chip on his shoulder is a quarterback who has the competitive fire burning that’s needed to rally his team late in the 4th quarter. In Spanish they refer to quarterbacks as “mariscal de campo” which translates literally to “Field Marshal.” If that doesn’t quite make sense, think back to Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLIII and you’ll understand why the term is so fitting.

That’s the Big Ben that captured Steelers Nations hearts and imaginations, and that’s the Big Ben that’s going to bring home Lombardi Number 7.

Even Still Ben Roethlisberger’s Remarks Are “Choto”

Even still, that doesn’t let Ben Roethlisberger off the hook.

If you’re reading this, you’ve read or heard Ben Roethlisberger’s words several times on several sites already. No need to rehash them here. But, in keeping with the linguistic theme of this piece, let’s do a little translation exercise with Roethlisberger’s remarks:

Ben’s “surprised” the Steelers drafted Rudolph
Translation: “Surprised” = ticked off

Ben wonders if the Steelers brain trust “believed” him when he told him he’d play 3 to 5 years.
Translation: Careful for what you wish for. Ben discussed retirement privately during several off seasons before doing so publically a year ago.

Ben wonders how a player who is going to be way down on the QB depth chart can help win a Super Bowl.
Translation: Ben, like a good alpha male is marking his territory.

Fourth, Ben might “point him to the playbook” if Mason ask for help.
Translation: This 36 year old signal caller is worried Father Time might be darkening his door.

As mentioned above, Ben Roethlisberger’s attitude is partially justified. But if you look closely at Mason Rudolph’s post draft comments, it’s clear that the rookie understands his place in the pecking order and is bending over backwards to make that clear.

That Ben Roethlisberger seems intent on taking the opposite interpretation, almost seems to reveal a little latent insecurity, insecurity unbecoming to a future Hall of Famer who professes a desire to play another 3 to 5 years.

And that’s what’s disappointing about his comments. Or, as Argentines would say, “Choto.”

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Steelers (Again) Prioritize Character with Terrell Edmunds & Other 2018 Draft Picks

The Pittsburgh Steelers may not draft in their fears, as pointed out in a recent article, but as it pertains to their recent draft classes, they sure do seem to be steering clear of those prospects with character/off-the-field issues (those proverbial “red flags”).

Two years ago, it was Artie Burns, the responsible new father and a surrogate dad to his little brother, following his mom’s untimely death; Sean Davis, the bilingual safety out of Maryland; and Javon Hargrave, the big nose tackle known as The Gravedigger who likes to give back by hosting youth football camps. 

Last season, it was T.J. Watt, the outside linebacker out of Wisconsin with a penchant for learning fast and a motor that never stops, the little brother of J.J. Watt, the Texans’ legendary defensive end who raised $37 million last season for the victims of Hurricane Harvey.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, the absolute breath of fresh air of a receiver whose biggest off-the-field issues in 2017 had to do with someone stealing his bicycle and Alejandro Villanueva teaching him how to drive because JuJu came to the NFL without a drivers’ license; James Conner, the University of Pittsburgh running back who battled both a major knee injury and cancer during his college career; and Cam Sutton, the Tennessee cornerback who was known for his intelligence and his ability to be a locker room leader.

Entering the 2018 NFL Draft, one wondered if Pittsburgh would stray from its recent trend of high-character guys by perhaps selecting someone with a more checkered past.

Terrell Edmunds, Ryan Shazier, Roger Goodell, 2018 NFL Draft Steelers

Terrell Edmunds with Ryan Shazier and Roger Goodell. Photo Credit: Tom Pennington, Getty Images via Full Press Coverage

Nope.

While other, higher-value prospects were still on the board at 28–including LSU running back Derrius Guice who was said to have had some maturity issues and unsubstantiated off-field problems in college–the Steelers selected Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds.

A player labeled as a major reach by the vast-majority of  experts and fans, Edmunds comes from a close-knit family and has two brothers who are also in the NFL–older brother, Trey, who plays for the Saints; and younger brother, Tremaine, who the Bills selected 12 spots ahead of Terrell in the most-recent draft.

  • Furthermore, Ferrell Edmunds, their father, played seven seasons as a tight end for both the Dolphins and Seahawks.

You may have scratched your head with the selection of Terrell Edmunds, but as soon as you saw him on stage on draft night, and then touring the Pittsburgh community last week, you just wanted to root for him.

In the second  round, the Steelers selected Oklahoma State receiver James Washington, whose biggest off-field problem at college seemed to be trying to find a peaceful spot to fish. 

There were certainly no reported off-field issues with Washington’s college teammate, quarterback Mason Rudolph, Pittsburgh’s first of two third-round selections.

As for that second third-round pick, Chukwuma Okorafor, the big left tackle from Western Michigan, his worst college attribute seemed to be that he was “too nice.”

  • Perhaps the best part of the Steelers recent draft philosophy is that they’ve managed to not only find players of high-character, but ones who are actually very good football players.

Smith-Schuster and Washington don’t have the blazing speed of a Martavis Bryant, the team’s fourth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but judging by their histories and overall character, it’s highly-unlikely either will face long-term suspensions for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

And if Smith-Schuster’s rookie season was any indication–58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns–he could be in-line to be the Steelers next great receiver.

Okorafor may not have quite as much potential as Mike Adams, the team’s 2012 second-round pick out of Ohio State, but he obviously didn’t fail a drug test at the NFL Combine, and he’ll get a chance to develop his skills under  the best offensive line coach around, Mike Munchak.

Perhaps Hargrave wouldn’t be the Steelers starting nose tackle right now (or a Steeler at all) if Alameda Ta’amu, Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick out of Washington in the 2012 NFL Draft, hadn’t been charged with a felony DUI during his rookie season, after striking several cars with his vehicle while fleeing from police. 

James Conner may not have the explosiveness of Chris Rainey, a running back Pittsburgh selected in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, but he’s currently a Steeler with a chance to make an NFL career for himself, while Rainey, who was released in January of 2013 after he was arrested for battery following a cellphone dispute with a woman, is currently playing in the CFL (come to think of it, 2012 was a bad draft for character guys).

  • The organization was slowly gaining a reputation that strayed from its regal, if mythical, moniker of “The Steeler Way.”

But if they keep focusing on talented football players who are also really great young men, the Steelers reputation could soon become one based in reality.

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Steelers 2018 Draft Class Proves that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin Don’t Live in their Fears

The Steelers 2018 draft class is complete. Suffice to say, things didn’t play out as outsiders expected.

By consensus, the Steelers biggest need in the 2018 NFL Draft was at inside linebacker. Drafting Le’Veon Bell’s replacement would have been wise. And the conventional wisdom dictated by the manhandling suffered at the hands of Jacksonville that the Steelers hit defense early and often.

  • So how did Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin conduct this draft?
Mike Tomlin, Terrelle Edmunds, Steelers 2018 1st round draft choice

Mike Tomlin shake hands with Terrell Edmunds. Photo Credit: Jessie Wardarski, Post-Gazette

The duo refused to live in their fears, ignored the critics and marched to their own tune during the draft. Now that the dust has settled, the Steelers have concluded the 2018 NFL Draft and they:

  • Didn’t pick up an inside linebacker
  • Drafted a safety which few “experts” felt was first round worthy
  • Invested only 1 of 4 premium picks on defense and 4 of Pittsburgh’s overall 7 picks were on offense
  • Made zero attempt to replace Le’Veon Bell

That surprised many in Steelers Nation, yours truly included. But it shouldn’t have. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert don’t make personnel decision out of fear. And while need has influenced their picks in the past, it is pretty clear that the Steelers stuck to their draft board.

Here’s the Steelers 2018 Draft Class at a Glance:

1st round, Terrell Edmunds, Safety, Virginia Tech
2nd round, James Washington, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma State
3rd round A, Mason Rudolph, Quarterback, Oklahoma State
3rd round B, Chukwuma Okorafor, Offensive Tackle, West Michigan
5th round A, Marcus Allen, Safety, Penn State
5th round, Jaylen Samuels, Running Back, North Carolina State
7th round, Joshua Frazier, Defensive Tackle, Alabama

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin got everyone talking by picking Terrell Edmunds. Mel Kipper Jr. had him rated as the draft’s 8th best safety. Some sites had him rated as the 20th best safety in the draft. Better safeties, in the eyes of many, remained on the board.

  • What to make of this?

As a draft ignoramus, I won’t hazard an argument. The experts, with a few exceptions, didn’t like it. There are only two or three decision makers in the Steelers draft room vs. an infinite number of pundits racing to offer instant evaluations.

Listening to the cascade of criticism generated by Terrell Edmunds pick reminded me of reaction to the New York Jet’s decision to draft Jeff Lageman in the 1989 NFL Draft. The legendary Pete Axthelm went so far as to joke that the Exxon Valdez hadn’t been piloted by scouts for the Jets. Lageman ended up making the Pro Bowl as a rookie and had a solid career, if one that fell below his status of the 14th pick.

In contrast, Mel Kipper Jr. praised the Steelers 1985 Draft Class, which turned out to be one of the worst in modern era and had to have contributed to Dan Rooney’s decision to fire Art Rooney Jr. as head of scouting.

And as everyone in Steelers Nation knows, the legendary Vic Stiletto panned the Steelers 1974 Draft Class after day one for not having improved themselves at punter. The 1974 haul brought Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster to Pittsburgh, all four of whom current have busts honoring them in Canton.

  • Will something similar happen to Terrell Edmunds? Will he become this generation’s Troy Polamalu? Will Mason Rudolph prove to be Ben Roethlisberger’s Aaron Rogers?

Time will tell. In the short-term the perception of the success or failure of this draft is going to hinge on whether Terrell Edmunds matches Tomlin and Colbert’s expectations or those of the pundits. But Mason Rudolph offers an “X” factor. The Steelers apparently had a 1st round grade on him, and if he proves to be a worthy success to Big Ben then this draft will be a success even if Edmunds is as base as the Mel Kipper Jr.’s of the world assure us he is.

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Steelers Draft Penn State Safety Marcus Allen in 5th round of 2018 NFL Draft

Along with inside linebacker, it was said that safety was one of the primary needs for the Steelers, as the 2018 NFL Draft approached.

And after making Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds their first-round pick, Thursday night, the Steelers continued to address the position with the selection of Penn State safety Marcus Allen in the fifth round on Saturday.

Marcus Allen, Steelers 2018 5th round pick

Steelers 5th round pick Marcus Allen, safety from Penn State

While his name may make many long-time fans wonder if he’s related to a certain Raiders/Chiefs Hall of Fame running back, as his NFL.com draft profile points out, Allen is actually the godson of fellow Hall of Fame running back–and Pittsburgh native–Curtis Martin.

Speaking of his draft profile, it goes on to describe Allen as “a punishing, downhill banger with good size and the attitude of a linebacker in run support.” His highlights profile video certainly supports that:

In four seasons at Happy Valley, Allen collected 320 tackles (only the sixth Nittany Lion to record over 300 tackles in his career), leading the team in that category with 110 in 2016. He also had three sacks but just one interception and 10 passes defensed.

Speaking of 2016, as per his Wikipedia page, it was during that season that Allen cemented his name in Penn State football lore by blocking a field goal that was returned for a touchdown in an upset win over Ohio State.

Allen was thrilled about being drafted by the Steelers, because, as reported by Pennlive.com on Saturday, despite growing up in Maryland, he considers Pittsburgh his hometown.

“I’m coming home. I’m coming home,” said an emotional Allen shortly after learning he would be a Steeler. “That’s why I’m happy.”

“It’s all tears of joy right now….It’s a perfect situation. This is my home. It’s my hometown. My grandmother is from there, my whole family,” said Allen, whose dad is also a Pittsburgh native.

It’s a heart-warming story, for sure, but getting back to the football side of things, there certainly seems to be a common theme for the two safeties the Steelers drafted.

Edmunds was described as a safety capable of playing anywhere in the secondary, even nickel and dime linebacker, and, referring again to his NFL.com draft profile, the Steelers may have similar plans for Allen:

  • “I think he’s a great fit as a nickel or dime linebacker in sub,” said an anonymous AFC team regional scout.

Despite their palpable need to upgrade at the inside linebacker spot heading into the weekend, the Steelers didn’t draft a single player from that position.

But with football becoming more and more specialized, the Steelers seem to have a different plan for inside linebacker (at least in sub packages), and their two newest safeties–including Penn State’s Marcus Allen–may get first crack at executing that plan.

 

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Steelers Pick Offensive Tackle Chukwuma Okorafor In 3rd Round of 2018 NFL Draft

The overhaul of the Steelers once maligned offensive line might seem like it took place just yesterday, what with the unit currently regarded as one of the best in the NFL, complete with three Pro Bowlers in 2017.

But, believe it or not, the drafting of right guard David DeCastro in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft–the third of four first or second round picks spent on offensive linemen between 2010-2012–was over a half-decade ago.

Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers 2018 3rd round pick

Steelers 2018 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor, offensive tackle from Western Michigan. Photo Credit: Carlos Osorio, AP

Therefore, it made perfect sense that finding quality depth along the offensive line, a player who could perhaps be groomed to assume a starter’s role in the not so distant future, was high on the Steelers draft wish list heading into the third round, Friday night.

  • Sure enough, with their second of two third round picks (92nd, overall), the Steelers selected offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor out of Western Michigan.
  • At 6-6 and 320 pounds, Chukwuma Okorafor certainly has  the size NFL teams want in their offensive tackles.

As for his resume, according to his NFL.com draft profile, Okorafor’s family immigrated to the United States from Botswana in 2010. What that means is football was a totally foreign sport to the youngster.

But apparently Okorafor was a quick-study from the start, as he was a highly sought-after high school recruit who ultimately signed with Western Michigan.

  • Okorafor was a starting right tackle in his sophomore year of 2015 before making the switch to left tackle in his junior season.

Despite his late introduction to American football, Chukwuma Okorafor comes to the NFL as a highly-decorated college player, earning First Team All-Mac honors in both his junior and senior seasons.

  • Rated as a top-5 to 10 prospect by most publications, Okorafor obviously is a decent value pick late in the third round.

His highlight clip would seem to support that notion.

While the Steelers may have drafted Chukwuma Okorafor with an eye towards the future, as alluded to earlier, they are certainly in need of some immediate quality depth after the departure of super-utility lineman Chris Hubbard, who started 10 games in-place of injured/suspended right tackle Marcus Gilbert a year ago, and performed so well, he earned a lucrative free agent deal with the Browns.

Under the tutelage of highly-acclaimed offensive line coach Mike Munchak, Okorafor will have the best in the business teaching him the finer points of his position.

The average age of the Steelers highly-accomplished offensive line will be just under 30 years by the start of the 2018 campaign, and in the world of professional football, it doesn’t take long for a unit to go from a strength to a weakness, with age being one of the biggest culprits.

Therefore, the selection of Chukwuma Okorafor in the third round of the 2018 NFLDraft could prove to be very timely in the long run.

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Steelers Draft Mason Rudolph in 3rd Round. Has Pittsburgh Picked Roethlisberger’s Replacement?

At the end of the day, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was both right and wrong. In his predraft run up, Wexell devoted a full article which justified the possibility of the Steelers selecting Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph.

  • And of course the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

So Wexell was right there but he was still wrong. In the week before the draft, Wexell wrote that the Steelers should only draft Rudolph if they felt he was deserving of a 1st round pick. Well, they did not, and drafted him in the third round.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers 2018 3rrd round pick

Steelers 3rd round pick Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: John Raoux, AP, via PennLive

Steelers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner things that Mason Rudolph could have been a first round pick, explaining:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and you know that some systems might fit better for certain people. I’ve liked him since the beginning, since we started evaluating him. I think that maybe if there’s any negative to his game, it might must be the ability to except and extend, but boy, you sure do see him do it a lot…. The ability to stand in the pock and make big plays on third down, be effective in situational football, the way he’s been, is very exciting.

The Steelers of course picked Rudolph one round after picking his favorite target, James Washington, in the second round. Rudolph discussed going to “the next chapter with one of your brothers, with your best receiver that you’ve spent your whole college days with, who you can potentially spend another 15 years with, that’s going to be one heck of a ride and I can’t wait to get it going.”

The story and idea of keeping a college QB-WR combo together makes for compelling copy, but there’s no assurance that the same magic can transfer from college to the pros. The Steelers made Charles Johnson, wide receiver out of Colorado their first round pick in 1994 and drafted Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 draft.

Charles Johnson wasn’t a bust, what was more of a Ziggy Hood type first round pick. The ups and downs that defined Kordell Stewart’s stint in Pittsburgh are well documented, but Yancey Thigpen and not Johnson was his top target.

Video Highlights of Mason Rudolph

The Steelers have invested heavily in scouting Mason Rudolph, with Kevin Colbert in attendance at Oklahoma State’s 59-21 win over Pitt last season, which saw Rudolph lead his team to 49-7 half time lead while throwing 5 touchdown passes.

Here’s a longer look at his highlight reel:

Mason Rudolph certainly can plan at the college level.

The question at this point isn’t whether he can play in the NFL, but whether he’s the successor to Ben Roethlisberger or not. When the Steelers drafted Landry Jones in 2013, they bent over backwards to assure the world that Landry Jones was coming to Pittsburgh to replace Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich, not Ben Roethlisberger. A year ago, similar assurances were given regarding Joshua Dobbs.

  • But the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph with a third round pick and even traded up a few slots to get him.

You generally don’t project third round draft picks as franchise quarterbacks, but third rounders are premium picks whom you do expect to develop into starters. And the Steelers have a history of turning third round picks into starting quarterbacks, as evidenced by the careers of Buddy Brister and Neil O’Donnell.

  • Neither man brought home One for the Thumb.

But Brister flashed potential in leading the 1989 Steelers to their near miracle turn around season, and Neil O’Donnell rallied a struggling 1995 Steelers all the way to Super Bowl XXX (where he promptly threw two boneheaded interceptions.)

The 1979 NFL Draft could perhaps offer some hope. The Steelers were picking last in each round, fresh off of their third championship from Super Bowl XIII, but they lacked a 3rd round pick thanks to John Clayton outing Chuck Noll for holding padded practices in the off season.

One slot before the Steelers would have made their third round pick Bill Walsh took a young quarterback who’d grown up in Western Pennsylvania. His name is Joe Montana and he ended up tying Terry Bradshaw‘s then record 4 Super Bowl rings.

Not too many 3rd round quarterbacks have succeeded in following that template since then, but Joe Montana’s story shows that Mason Rudolph can do what’s being asked of him.

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Steelers Draft Terrell Edmunds in First Round of 2018 Draft. Did They Repeat Historical Mistake?

In what amounts to a mild surprise, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Terrell Edmunds a safety out of Virginia Tech. Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin explained the reasons for picking Edmunds along the following lines:

Within (defensive coordinator) Bud Foster’s scheme you saw him play free, you saw him play strong, you saw him play deep middle, you saw him play sub-package linebacker in there alongside his brother. That versatility was exciting.

Terrell Edmunds,

Steelers 2018 first round draft pick Terrell Edmunds at Virginia Tech. Photo Credit: Dale Zanine, USA Today via ESPN.com

Per Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, the Steelers at first attempted to trade down to pick Alabama’s Rashaan Evans, but were blocked.  Wexell didn’t lay down any odds on the Steelers taking Edmunds, by he did lay down 4-1 odds that the Steelers would draft Justin Reid, a safety from Stanford, who Pittsburgh left on the board.

  • Many analysts had not graded Edmunds as a 1st round pick, yet the Steelers were willing to look past his 2017 tape due to a shoulder injury that Edmunds had suffered and focus more on his accomplishments in 2016.

As Kevin Colbert explained, “The previous year head had four interceptions and then last year he had two in 10 games. But last year he was, again, minus the shoulder. He was a really important part of a really good defense.” With that said, Edmunds himself was surprised by the pick admitting: “Honestly, I was surprised,” to be taken in the first round, Edmunds explained “I’m just ready, though. I’m telling you. I’m ready. I was praying and hoping. Now, it’s time to work.”

If nothing else, Edmunds candor is refreshing.

Terrell Edmunds Video Highlights

The Harris Highlights video clip touted him as “The Nation’s Most Underrated Safety.” Of course Harris was hired to promote Terrell Edmunds Draft fortunes so you’d expect them to say that. Take a look for yourself:

Terrell Edmunds certainly makes some impressive plays for Virginia Tech on that highlight reel, although some of those passes he is picking off are not going to be thrown by NFL caliber quarterbacks.

A sampling of NFL Draft analysts finds a lot of skepticism being leveled at the Steelers for the pick. Mel Kipper Jr. had Edwards rated as the 8th best safety in the draft. Todd McShay of ESPN thought that Edmunds went too early, and Luke Easterling of the DraftWire labeled the pick as a “head scratcher.”

  • Clearly the thinking inside the South Side differs from the outside.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are wise to keep their own council. While it seems like “only yesterday” 18 years ago a good majority of the talking heads felt that the Steelers HAD to draft Chad Pennington to replace Kordell Stewart. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin took Plaxico Burress instead. Both men had respectable careers, but it was Burress who made game-changing plays in the Super Bowl, albeit not for Pittsburgh.

Are Steelers Repeating Historical Mistake with Edmunds Pick?

Still, even from the perspective of self-professed draft ignoramus, there one aspect of the decision to pick Terrell Edmunds appears to be worrisome, and that’s the historical precedent.

In the early 1970’s Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn, and Dick Haley established the NFL’s diamond standard for drafting excellence. Yes, they hit a grand-slam with the Steelers famous 1974 Draft Class that brought in Hall of Famer’s Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster. But even before the 1974 NFL Draft, the quart had already drafted four Hall of Famers in the form of Joe Greene in 1969, Terry Bradshaw in 1970, Jack Ham in 1971 and Franco Harris in 1972. After 1975 or 1976, the quality of the Steelers drafting took a nose dive.

However, one of those reasons, as explained by Art Rooney Jr. in Ruanaidh, was that the Steelers ended up outsmarting themselves, but trying to find players who might have fallen for some reason. And Kevin Colbert’s explanation sounds an awful lot like a similar justification.

  • Hopefully, Terrell Edmunds will prove that those are unfounded fears.

He’ll get a shot to start doing that this summer as he competes with newly J.J. Wilcox and Morgan Burnett for playing time while at St. Vincents. Welcome to Steelers Nation Terrell Edmunds.

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