Javon Hargrave Will Be an Immediate Hit with Steelers Nation – Here’s Why

If you’re a Pittsburgh Steelers fan (and why wouldn’t you be, if you were reading this article?), you may have been clamoring for your favorite football team to draft a big, hulking defensive lineman in the first round of the recently conducted 2016 NFL Draft.

Andrew Billings, the freakishly strong interior lineman from Baylor, may have been your number one choice. In-fact, in many mock drafts, he was the guy predicted to arrive in Pittsburgh at pick 25.  If you were in the Billings camp, you were surely disappointed when cornerback Artie Burns of Miami was the top pick.

The following evening, you may have been ready to throw your laptop/smartphone when Billings wasn’t the second  round selection (it was safety Sean Davis out of Maryland).  By the third round, as teams continued to pass on Billings, you probably figured it was a no-brainer that Pittsburgh would take him with the 89th pick.

But, once again, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin thwarted your dreams and selected Javon Hargrave, an interior lineman out of South Carolina State. If you didn’t destroy whatever device you normally use to access the Internet and you researched Hargrave’s college football history, you may have said, “Andrew who?” as you quickly fell head-over-heals in-love with this potential diamond in the rough.

  • Actually, scratch that. Hargrave is no diamond in the rough.

By all accounts, he looks like a valuable diamond that happened to be on display at some mom and pop jewelry store for the past few years, instead of your traditional corporate places you find at the mall.

South Carolina State is a I-AA football program, and that as much as the weaknesses listed on Hargrave’s NFL.com draft profile, such as “squatty arms and tiny hands” is probably what made most teams shy away from him in the first or second round.

Fact is, red flags are a big deal, and while playing for a I-AA school isn’t a character flaw, it could be a competitive one. However, as Kevin Colbert told the assembled media after selecting Hargrave, the youngster did everything he was supposed to do at that level; he dominated:

  • Hargrave was named both the SBN Sports Mel Blount Defensive Player of the Year and MEAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 and again in 2015.

That’s some serious dominance. Don’t believe me?

  • In four seasons at South Carolina State, Hargrave had 37 sacks and 62.5 tackles for loss.

That, my friend, is a man among boys.

According to Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, Hargrave didn’t have good enough grades to go to one of your traditional college powerhouses. Nevertheless, he got his chance at SC State, and, sometimes in life that’s all a person needs. Hargrave did enough in college to get noticed by the NFL, and being a third-round pick, he’ll certainly have a great chance to turn himself into a professional football player.

Speaking of Mitchell, he referenced the Steelers success in the 1970s with taking players from small and historically black colleges, when he spoke to the media shortly after his bosses gave him his latest pupil: 

The first thing I’d like to say if Mr. (Bill) Nunn is alive today, he would really like this pick. When he graduated (high school), he didn’t have the grades to go to school. He set out, worked hard, worked his way in, got there and played very well. Out of anyone coming out this year, defensive linemen or defensive tackles, this guy is pretty impressive.

If coach Mitchell likes his new prospect, you just know Steelers fans are already salivating at the thought of watching him do his thing at training camp.

A big, athletic, 300-plus defensive lineman who hails from a small school? If he contributes anything early, Hargrave will be a fan-favorite before the start of the regular season.

I know my Steelers  fans, and there is no way Javon Hargrave won’t quickly be embraced and beloved.

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Filling a Need for a Nose, Steelers Draft Javon Hargrave in 3rd Round, NT from South Carolina State

Day two of the 2016 NFL Draft saw the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to tick off their needs. After drafting cornerback Artie Burns in the first round and safety Sean Davis in the second round, Pittsburgh looked to fill their next glaring area of need at nose tackle as the Steelers draft Javon Hargrave a nose tackle out of South Carolina State.

Perhaps what’s most telling about the move are the comments from Steelers defensive line coach and assistant head coach John Mitchell. Mitchell is a veteran and makes no bones about the need to strip his players down to zero, and coach them up from there.

In other words, Mitchell is not known for lavishing praise on rookies. Yet, Mitchell did not hold back:

The first thing I’d like to say if Mr. (Bill) Nunn was alive today, he would really like this pick. Javon Hargrave is a self-made man,” continued Mitchell. When he graduated (high school), he didn’t have the grades to go to school. He set out, worked hard, worked his way in, got there and played very well. Out of anyone coming out this year, defensive linemen or defensive tackle, this guy is pretty impressive.

Invoking Bill Nunn’s name in connection with a third round pick his high praise in indeed, as Nunn was the scout who found such Steelers gems as Mel Blount, John Stallworth, L.C. Greenwood and of course Donnie Shell who also hailed from South Carolina State.

Video Highlights of Javon Hargrave

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert put a lot of stock on what they see on tape from potential draft prospects, and Javon Hargrave has quite a pedigree:

On Johnny Mitchell’s watch, which began in 1994 after Bill Cowher dismissed Steel Curtain veteran Steve Furness as defensive line coach, the nose tackle’s role from Joel Steed to Casey Hampton has traditionally been to clog up the middle first, with pass rushing coming second.

  • But the nose tackle is evolving under defensive coordinator Keith Butler.

The Steelers want nose tackles who an not only be stout against the run, but also pressure the passer. Steve McLendon did that in 2012 in relief of Casey Hampton, but was less of a presence in the pass rush after taking over the role in 2013.

  • Looking at his college states, Javon Hargrave can fill that need.

In his NCAA career, Hargrave compiled 37 sacks, including 29.5 in his last two seasons alone. He’s got a 40 time of 4.9 which is good for a defensive lineman. As Jim Wexell points out, Hargrave even had 6 sacks in a game that he didn’t start.

A big part of the reason the Steelers let Steve McLendon go to the Jets was that he was off of the field for almost 2/3rds of the defensive snaps. Yet John Mitchell sees Hargave breaking that mold, explaining “I’ll tell you this, he will give us a new dimension for a big man in our sub-package.”

Depending on Hargrave’s ability to pick up the Steelers scheme, he’s seen as someone who can also help spell Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward, allowing Mitchell to set up a rotation at defensive line, which has been on of the hallmarks of his strategy.

The Steelers will not hand Hargrave anything. Daniel McCullers will enter training camp as the team’s number one nose tackle, but Hargrave will get every chance to press McCullers for playing time and even the starting role.

  • That’s what you want to hear of a third round pick.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Just Hargrave.

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Shoring Up Secondary, Steelers Sign Ross Cockrell to 1 Year Contract

Pittsburgh took its first step towards shoring up its secondary in a move that saw the Steelers sign Ross Cockrell to a one year contract. Cornerback Ross Cockrell was one of the Steelers exclusive rights free agents, meaning he couldn’t negotiate with any other team, but the Steelers still needed to make him an offer.

If the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers had one unquestionable weakness, it was in their secondary. For starters, the 2015 Steelers fielded an accidental secondary, as no one, save for Mike Mitchell, played in the role envisioned for him when he was acquired.

That might seem like a tautology but the Steelers secondaries from 2011-2013 were far from dominant, but played better without much of a pass rush to speak of. While Ross Cockrell might not be close to being a “shutdown corner,” bringing him back to Pittsburgh is a smart move.

Ross Cockrell 2015 Retrospective

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin turned a lot of heads when the Steelers claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers after the first wave of mandatory cuts. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo saw the move as sufficiently puzzling enough to question whether the Steelers coaches and scouting teams were not on the same page, much as they had been over offensive line in general and Max Starks in particular in 2007 and 2008.

  • While not speaking directly to Ray Fittipaldo’s point, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola boosted the level of debate on the subject.

Responding to a reader’s question, Labriola cited legendary Steelers scout Bill Nunn, who instructed younger scouts not to put too much faith into the performance of defensive backs on other teams, because you had no way of knowing what those DB’s had been instructed to do.

  • Enter Ross Cockrell, the 2014 4th rounder that Rex Ryan and company couldn’t wait to get rid of.

As a wavier wire pickups go, Ross Cockrell’s 2015 season alone makes him a success. Per the Steelers rendering, Cockrell started 7 games and suited up for 15, the only game he missed was the season opener at New England. While Ross Cockrell’s 2015 performance doesn’t project him as another Rod Woodson or Mel Blount, he did give the Steelers secondary something it sorely needed – turnovers.

The fumble recover shows some particularly good concentration and execution (available as of 1/23/16 — watch it now before Roger Goodell’s You Tube police have it taken down):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GPk3MghFHA

And without question, Cockrell’s most important play of the year came in the Steelers playoff win over the Bengals. It took Jarvis Jones to stop Jeremy Hill, Ryan Shazier to strip the ball and Ross Cockrell to recover it.

The Steelers secondary needs help. Ross Cockrell might not be “The Answer” to the Steelers defensive backfield woes, but he is certainly part of the equation.

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Larger Lesson Behind Ryan Shazier’s Breakout Game vs. 49ers

The Pittsburgh Steelers 43-18 win over the San Francisco 49ers gave Steelers Nation a lot of positives to chew on. The Steelers offense, down by two of its best players, showed it could be a dominate force. And the Steelers defense showed that it had zero intent on throwing in the towel and calling 2015 a “rebuilding year.”

  • But perhaps the most encouraging sign was Ryan Shazier’s breakout game against the 49ers.

Just how good was Ryan Shazier? How about 15 tackles, 3 of them for losses, a sack a forced fumble, a QB hit and a complete neutralization of Colin Kaepernick as a running threat. But there’s larger lesson that goes beyond Shazier’s statistics.

Shazier’s performance was a potentially transformative, and fully appreciating the importance of Ryan Shazier’s breakout game requires going back to words of wisdom Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell penned a year ago.

Last October, the Steelers were 3-3, licking their wounds after a loss in which the Cleveland Browns were clearly the better team. Wexell seized upon that moment to author “Deja Vu All Over Again” in what was perhaps the best piece on the 2014 Steelers.

In “Deja Vu All Over Again,” Wexell graphically reconstructs the the Steelers 2000 season, building the back story with insights that only a true insider can offer. In a nutshell, Wexell compared Mike Tomlin’s 2012, 2013, and 2014 Steelers to Bill Cowher’s 1998, 1999, and 2000 Steelers.

In Wexell’s eyes, both teams were going through the natural rebuilding growing pains that inflict even the best franchises. Wexell recounts the key decisions made by Bill Cowher and newly arrived Kevin Colbert, enumerating both the brilliant and boneheaded ones, and reminding readers that all of them were controversial at the time. (Wexell also calls out some of the more inane arguments made at the time by certain members of the Pittsburgh media).

The crux of Wexell’s argument is that chief difference between the two eras is that Mike Tomlin benefited from having Ben Roethlisberger calling his signals whereas Cowher was stuck with Kordell Stewart. Wexell’s observations made sense, and Steel Curtain Rising thought to do a detailed, position-by-position breakdown of the Steelers 1998, 1999, and 2000 rosters with their 2012, 2013, and 2014 counterparts.

Alas, there simply wasn’t time.

  • Fortunately, there is time to connect the dots between his final argument, and Shazier’s breakout performance vs. the 49ers.

Wexell concluded this piece with this observation:

Maybe one or two of these current free agents can contribute to a championship the way Von Oelhoffen did, but to tell the truth it’s all melding together in my mind at this point.
I am certain, though, that even in this state of deja vu, I have watched an organization use patience to crawl out of a hole by making one smart decision at a time. And they have no choice but to use that method once again.

The 2014 Steelers of course went 8-2 immediately after Wexell penned that article, but 8-2 seemed like a pipe dream when Pittsburgh was at 3-3. And part of the reason for the turn around, was that the Steelers were already “making one smart decision at a time.”

Today that might seem self-evident, but that was hardly the case on draft day 2014. Going into the 2014 NFL Draft everyone knew the Steelers were going to take a cornerback. The only question seemed to be whether they get a shot at Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, or Calvin Pryor. Were those men absent, (and Gilbert was supposedly the one the Steelers wanted), Pittsburgh would look to wide receiver.

  • Inside linebacker wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen.

Steel Curtain Rising’s 2014 Steelers Draft Need Matrix had cornerback and wide receiver at its top. The Steelers 2014 draft needs at inside linebacker was rated as 7th, citing the presence of Lawrence Timmons, improved play by Vince Williams, potential by Terence Garvin, and the possibility that Sean Spence could rebound.

  • Shazier’s game vs. the 49ers proves that it is a good thing that neither Mike Tomlin nor Kevin Colbert ever read Steel Curtain Rising.

Seriously. Tomlin and Colbert, along with Keith Butler, Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake clearly knew that even in April 2014 inside linebacker was far deeper than defensive back for the Steelers. They also knew they’d be without the services of Jerricho Cotchery and couldn’t have seen enough of Markus Wheaton to be comfortable at WR.

  • In the end, it didn’t matter.
Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

The Steelers brain trust saw a potential super star in Ryan Shaizer and did the same thing they’re Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, and Bill Nunn did in 40 years earlier in the Steelers 1974 Draft when they had two “good” wide receivers in Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin. They saw the chance to grab two great ones in the form of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

  • And that’s the lesson behind Ryan Shazier’s breakout game vs. the 49ers.

Sure, the Steelers might be in a personnel slump with their secondary. Perhaps Pittsburgh’s playoff chances in 2015 will be limited because of it. But in just his 7th official NFL start, Shaizer showed Steelers Nation that he can be truly great.

And in picking him in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Steelers were simply “making one smart decision at a time” as Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the 49er’s offense can attest.

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Is Cause of Steelers Secondary Slump Simple Bad Luck?

Yesterday’s Watch Tower edition reviewed Ray Fittipaldo’s suggestion in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that the Steelers current inability to find competent cornerback is rooted a failure by the front office and coaching staff to get on the same page.

  • It says here that Ray Fittipaldo may be on to something.

Especially if you consider that the current personnel “crisis” isn’t limited to cornerback. Arguably, entire Steelers secondary suffers from a personnel slump. The Steelers secondary has failed to produce turnovers in force since 2010, and the only quality defensive backs rafted and developed by the Steelers since Super Bowl XLIII, Keenan Lewis and Ryan Mundy, are now employed by the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears. Consider the contrast with the guys still in Pittsburgh:

Both the subjective and objective evidence at hand is not favorable. But it’s possible that the Steelers secondary slump has an entirely different root cause. It’s one that once bedeviled the Steelers at a different spot on the depth chart for over a decade. Fans in the “fire us crowd” won’t like to read this, but that doesn’t make the explanation any less plausible:

  • Bad luck

Yes, you read that right. Bad luck could be the culprit behind the Steelers struggle to man the secondary with serviceable if not quality players.

Pittsburgh Suffers Post Steel Curtain Defensive Line Drought

The Steelers gave the NFL its first dynasty defined by its defensive line. Chuck Noll drafted Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood in 1969, Dwight White in 1971, and added Ernie Holmes as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1972. Before the Steelers even won their second Super Bowl, Time magazine was putting the original Steel Curtain on its cover.

By the time Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood suited up for their last Pro Bowl in 1980, the defensive lineman had made a collective 18 Pro Bowl appearances for Pittsburgh Steelers in ten years.

  • You don’t assemble quartet of that caliber without a strong eye for talent.

But talent evaluation skills aren’t the only factor in play, as suggested by this next factoid:

  • Joel Steed would be the next defensive lineman to get Pro Bowl honors in 1998.

That’s right, the franchise that once established the gold standard for defensive line excellence in the 70’s went 18 years without sending a single defensive lineman to the Pro Bowl. It wasn’t as if the Steelers didn’t try. In the 1980’s alone, the Steelers drafted defensive lineman Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera and Aaron Jones in the first round.

The Steelers also targeted the defensive line in the second round, picking John Goodman in 1980, Gerald Williams in 1986, and Kenny Davidson in 1990. Of the threesome, Gerald Williams was the only quality player, but the Steelers were forced to use him at nose tackle instead of defensive end because they could never find anyone else to play in the middle.

The Steelers only used one third rounder on a defensive lineman during that era, and he was Craig Veasey, taken in 1990 and Veasey was a total bust, making only 5 starts over 6 years in stops in Pittsburgh, Miami, and Houston.

In fact, the Steelers most accomplished defensive lineman during the 1980’s was Keith Willis, who made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent.

  • Things improved in 1992 with Bill Cowher’s arrival.

The Steelers added Steed in 1992, Kevin Henry in 1993, and Brensten Buckner in 1994, Oliver Gibson in 1995, and Orpheus Roye in 1996. That was an improvement on the previous decade, but Tom Donahoe also paid a hefty price to move up to pick Jeremy Staat, a person better known for his tattoos and later service in the US military than for his exploits on the field.

Successful NFL Draft = Art + Science + Luck

What happened? The Steel Curtain was scouted by a team comprised of Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Bill Nunn Jr. and Tom Modrak and Chuck Noll make his picks based on their reports. Clearly these 6 men didn’t suffer collective case of defensive line evaluation stupidity the moment the clock struck midnight on December 31st, 1979.

Dan Rooney realized that things weren’t working and removed his brother as head of the Steelers scouting department in October 1986. Chuck Noll drafted Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson in his next two drafts.

Noll’s next four drafts brought Hardy Nickerson, Greg Lloyd, John Jackson, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky, Neil O’Donnell and Barry Foster. In a word, communication between scouting and coaching improved enough for Noll to draft the players who would fuel the Steelers early 1990’s resurgence under the Cowher Power banner.

  • But notice, there’s not a defensive lineman named above.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did find decent to good defensive lineman in their first 7 drafts, but it wasn’t until their 8th draft that they bagged a great defensive lineman one, in the form of Aaron Smith.

  • The moral of the story is that draft NFL personnel evaluation is a blend of science, art and luck.

The Steelers secondary slump appears to be serious. Could it sink the Steelers 2015 season? It is way, way too early to say so. Might its roots be found in a failure by Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Carnell Lake to get on the same page as Kevin Colbert and his scouts? Perhaps.

But the Steelers personnel strike outs in the secondary might also be a simple, if however maddening, case of bad luck.

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Watch Tower: Insight into Steelers Scouting Needed, 2015 Draft & More

The Steelers 2015 Draft is in the books so the Watch Tower turns its lights to the press coverage of the Steelers draft and all the associated efforts the go with it.

Colbert, Tomlin & the Art of the Informationless Press Conference

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette once lamented that Mike Tomlin had “mastered the art of the informationless press conference.” Bill Cowher was no better, with John Steigerwald admitting that he stopped asking questions at press conferences five or six years before Cowher departed.

  • To a lay person’s view these complaints are a little surprising.

Unlike other NFL teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers severely limit media access to their head coach and general manger. Kevin Colbert doesn’t do interviews during the regular season. Mike Tomlin’s offseason media availability is so limited that Pittsburgh reporters actually have to travel to the NFL owners meetings to get on the record time with Tomlin.

  • So you’d think that reporters would welcome whatever on the record interaction with Colbert and Tomlin that they can get.

And they probably do, but pay close enough attention, and you’ll the media’s collective appetite for more is apparent. And prior to the 2015 NFL Draft, independent Pittsburgh sports reporting czar Dejan Kovacevic, offered some insight into why.

In his pre-draft article, Kovacevic argued that cornerback was the Steelers top draft need bar none, and attempted to get Kevin Colbert and/or Mike Tomlin on the record confirming his view point. He then warned his readers “Which, of course, led me to waste everyone’s time by asking this question at the session today:”

Kovacevic didn’t get the answer he wanted, and Colbert’s simile seems to indicate that the General Manager is fully aware of that fact. Kovacevic’s a savvy enough that Colbert’s answer didn’t come as a surprise.

But listening to Colbert and Tomlin’s generic, boiler plate on steroids response has got to be frustrating, especially for a reporter who has probably heard both men give far more informative and perhaps colorful answers in off-the-record settings.

Indeed, it would be refreshing for all, if Colbert had said something like this:

I understand where you’re coming from, but ultimately history has taught us not to lock in on any one player or one position. Think back to the 2012 draft, when many thought cornerback a priority need for us, and  it probably was. But look what happened. David DeCastro, a guy who most experts had going in the top ten, fell right into our laps. Now guard wasn’t as urgent of a need as corner and some other positions at the time, but we thought that DeCastro had the type of talent that you simply cannot pass on. So we drafted David DeCastro and he’s growing into the stud we thought he would right before our eyes. So to answer your question, yes, corner’s on our want list going into this draft, but we’re simply not going to commit to addressing it in any particular round.

OK, perhaps Colbert wouldn’t have been quite so explicit, but this was an accurate description of what happened in 2012, and such an answer would have set the stage for what happened in the 2015 draft.

Needed More Press Coverage on Steelers Scouting Operations

Kovacevic’s (and other reporters) frustration with the dearth of hard information coming out of the Steelers pre-draft press conferences represents a symptom of a deeper problem:

  • The workings of the Steelers scouting and evaluation process are almost a complete mystery.

OK, neither the Steelers nor is any other NFL teams going to publish their equivalent of trade secrets to the public at large. Nor should they. But much the same can be said for game planning and offensive and defensive strategies, and yet the press does provide the public with valuable insights on those fronts. Without doing any exhaustive research, here are a few morsels freely available for public consumption:

  • At first, Mike Tomlin granted his coordinators far greater autonomy than Bill Cowher did
  • Pre Bruce Arians comments, Tomlin took some of that autonomy away on the offensive side
  • Word is Tomlin will play a greater role in defensive game planning, implying LeBeau’s autonomy remained intact

Peek back into further history and you’ll discover other examples:

  • It was Chan Gailey and not Ron Erhardt who fathered the 5 wide out spread during the run to Super Bowl XXX
  • Jed Hughes went over Tony Dungy’s head to push Aaron Jones ill-fated move from defensive end to outside linebacker

Contrast that with what we know about the Steelers scouting processes, player evaluation, and decision making processes. Very little is known indeed. The Watch Tower commended Ed Bouchette for getting Bill Cowher on the record, describing Dan Rooney’s process for achieving pre-draft consensus between his head coach and Directors of Football Operations.

  • That was an incredible piece of insight on its own merits that whose value was enhanced by its rarity.
Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley

Steelers Draft War Room Circa 1974: Bill Nunn Jr, Dick Haley, Tim Rooney and Art Rooney Jr.

The historic Steelers draft hauls of the 1970’s spawned plenty of stories from inside the Steelers draft rooms that gave us Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, John Stallworth, Franco Harris and other legends. But since then the landscape has been pretty barren. Yes, we know that Myron Cope convinced coaches to pick Carlton Haselrig in the 12th round of the Steelers 1989 Draft. If memory serves, word filtered out that Dan Rooney Jr. found both Anthony Wright and Willie Parker.

More recently, we know that Maurkice Pouncey knocked the socks off of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine. But there’s far more that Steelers Nation doesn’t know about the Steelers scouting operation that it does know.

Some of this is logical. While the Steelers may restrict official press access to their position coaches, beat writers see them on a daily basis, and undoubtedly engage in all sorts of off-the-record chats at water coolers, in elevators, and heck probably while in the john. In contrast, scouts are out in the field… scouting.

Nonetheless, the Watch Tower calls on the credentialed scribes in Steelers Nation to provide the fan base with deeper insight into this critical facet of the Pittsburgh Steelers operation.

Steelers 2015 Draft Day Bragging Rights for Kovacevic, Kaboly, Lolley & Wexell

Mock drafts and draft predictions seem to have grown to the point where they’re an industry all of their own (just Google 2016 Mock draft and you’ll see) and the scribes of Steelers Nation are no exception.

Unlike 2015, when Jim Wexell nailed the Steelers pick of Ryan Shazier, no one had Pittsburgh picking Bud Dupree. That’s because everyone projected Dupree as a top 10 pick. Nonetheless, Dejan Kovacevic correctly read the Kevin Colbert tea leaves, and sensed that the Steelers were leaning towards pass rush.

So kudos to Kovacevic for being the one to say “pass rusher” when everyone else was still saying corner (for the record Kovacevic took stark exception to the Bud Dupree pick, and gives the Colbert/Tomlin first round picks a collective D+ grade.)

Kudos are also in order for The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Mark Kaboly who had the Steelers picking Senquez Golson (albeit a round later) and Jesse James in the 5th round. Dale Lolloy also had the Steelers picking Senquez Golson, although he projected Golson as a 4th rounder, so Lolloy also gets some bragging rights.

Bragging rights are also in order for Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell who not only projected the Steelers picking Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round, he also correctly slotted Chickillo as a compensatory pick.

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Steelers Draft Room Missing Bill Nunn, Joe Greene Already?

In four days we’ll know what the Steelers plans for the 2015 NFL Draft are. In four our five years, we’ll know if those plans are any good or not. But we already know something about the 2015 NFL Draft and the Pittsburgh Steelers – it will be unique.

Joe Greene, Bill Nunn, Steelers scouts

Joe Greene and Bill Nunn observe Steelers practice together

For the first time in 47 years the Pittsburgh Steelers will enter the NFL Draft without the wisdom of either Bill Nunn Jr. or Joe Greene.

  • The impact of losing both men in the draft room should be minimized.

None Better for Steelers than Bill Nunn

Bill Nunn is of course famous for his work for the Pittsburgh Courier, once one of the nation’s leading African American newspapers. It was in that capacity that led him to complain to Dan Rooney over what he saw as unequal treatment of black reporters by the Steelers press office.

  • Rather than rebuff his criticism, Dan Rooney turned around and offered Nunn a job.

Nunn came on board in 1968, and the next year Chuck Noll drafted Joe Greene, Jon Kolb, and L.C. Greenwood – a trio that boasts 14 Super Bowl rings between them. Nunn of course plugged the Steelers into his network of contacts at Historically Black Colleges, leading the Steelers to stars like Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, and Glen Edwards. And Nunn played a pivotal role in bringing John Stallworth to the Steelers.

Nunn officially retired in the late 80’s, but never actually stopped working for the Steelers.

In fact, whenever the Steelers broke in a new scout, the pointed him directly to Nunn for mentoring. For those tempted to think that Nunn’s title of Senior Player Personnel Assistant was merely ceremonial window dressing the way Chuck Noll’s title of “Administration Advisor” was would do well to remember that Nunn suffered a stroke while watching footage for the Steelers.

But by that point he’d already made his scouting reports and offered his evaluations. It’s impossible to know how much he’ll be missed, but any time you lose someone who had a hand in scouting 11 Hall of Famers your drafting is going to take a hit.

Impact of Joe Greene’s Absence Easier to Pin Point?

In contrast, the loss of Joe Greene might be easier to pinpoint, and perhaps Steelers Nation is already seeing evidence of it. Joe Greene retired a few days after the 2013 NFL Draft.

A few days after he retired, I asked a member of the Steelers press corps “Did Joe Greene actually do anything for the Steelers?”

My contact informed me that this was a question that the media themselves speculated about, but also confirmed that they’d “See Greene around all the time,” indicating he sort of acted as a “coach emeritus.”

When asked about Joe Greene contributions to the Steelers scouting efforts, Kevin Colbert revealed this:

No doubt his biggest contribution in our meeting room, aside from just the scouting, was his ability to talk to us about leadership. Many times during our draft discussions we would leave it to Joe to talk about this player’s potential as a leader. This player’s importance to his team as a leader, and none of us could speak from that vantage point, only Joe Greene could. Many times we just sat back and listened to him expound upon, what leadership meant, not only to a team, but to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That quote makes a recent observation by Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell a little chilling. In reflecting upon Ike Taylor and Troy Polamlau’s recent retirements, Wexell titled a recent column, “Dear Steelers Draft for Character.”

Wexell pulls no punches in his assessment of the direction of the team, observing:

I’m going to use Ike’s retirement not to lament his loss but to shed light on what needs to be drafted. And I’m not talking about cornerbacks, either. I’m talking about character….
…Polamalu told me the night he retired that he’s concerned about the “new culture” that’s replacing the players who once played for each other, not for selfish reasons.

Wexell goes on to state whatever Steelers fan knows: Players like Taylor, Polamalu, and Brett Keisel always put the team first. He contrasts that with the Steelers hosting Marcus Peters and Randy Gregory for Steelers 2015 Pre Draft Visits, pointing to red flags raised by Peter’s coachability and Gregory’s failure of the NFL Scouting Combine’s “Idiot Test” for marijuana usage (note, “Idiot Test” are my words, not Wexell’s.)

Wexell wasn’t quite finished, adding:

A scan down their list of visitors this draft season shows that the Steelers are looking at all kinds of oddballs, from lawbreakers to transfers to position-changers to prima donnas to academic failures and to injury issues. Is this what is meant by the new culture?

Wexell concedes (and openly hopes) the Steelers are merely doing their due diligence, giving players with questionable character issues a chance to tell their side of the story. Fair enough.

But upon reading this, one can’t help but conclude that the Steelers draft board discussion are indeed poorer for the absence of Bill Nunn and Joe Greene’s voices.

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Bill Nunn, Jr. Pittsburgh Steelers “Ace in the Hole” 1924-2014

Bill Nunn, Jr. the longest-tenured member of the Pittsburgh Steelers scouting community has passed away from complications suffered from a stroke on the eve of what would have been his 46th NFL Draft. Nunn was 89 and is survived by his wife Francis, daughter Lydell, and son Bill Nunn III.

  • A great many fans in Steelers Nation will react to news by asking, “Who is Bill Nunn?” 

The answer to that question is that nobody whose name isn’t “Rooney” or “Noll” had a bigger role in securing those six Steelers Lombardi trophies than Bill Nunn.

In the battle reverse the Pittsburgh Steelers first 40 years of straight losing:

  • Dan Rooney operated as the statesman orchestrating behind the scenes, 
  • Chuck Noll served as the field general, 
  • Art Rooney, Jr. and Dick Haley coordinated the logistics and material, 

And Bill Nunn Jr. acted as the Steelers Ace in the Hole.

Nunn could play that role because he brought something to the Steelers that other NFL teams were either unready or unable to embrace.

Blindsiding the NFL with Colorblindness

The National Football League began as an integrated organization, however by 1933 the league’s final two African American’s had left the league which stayed segregated until 1945. Integration came slowly to the NFL following World War II, in well into the 1960’s many NFL teams enforced unofficial quota systems limited the number of black players they selected.

Art Rooney Sr. was in no way a racist but the same cannot be said for some of his coaches, such as Bill Austin, who Roy Jefferson overhead making racist comments.

Whether Austin factored race into his draft decisions or not, when first approached by the Steelers Bill Nunn, who then worked as a sports columnist at the Pittsburgh Courier, rebuffed the Rooneys, saying he didn’t like the way they did business.

  • Dan Rooney called him in for a face-to-face meeting which ended with Nunn agreeing to work part time for the Steelers.

With Chuck Noll’s arrival in 1969 Nunn’s status shifted to full time, and six seasons later the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first Super Bowl. Nunn explained the transformation this way:

To me, Dan and Chuck were the same type of person. I don’t think they see color, and I don’t say that about a lot of people. I say that sincerely. When we used to line up the draft board, Chuck wasn’t concerned with the dots.

Nunn, a former college athlete of course understood athletics and had annually produced an All-African American team based on players from HBC (Historically Black Colleges) rosters.

  • But it was Nunn’s network of connections at those schools that made him so invaluable to the Steelers. 

With the Steelers running one of the limited number of color blind scouting operations in 1969, and Nunn scouting the HBC circuit, the Steelers drafted Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.

  • Note, that’s half of the Steel Curtain and two NFL Hall of Famers, acquired thanks to active resistance to the prejudice that ruled the day

While finding these players was important, but Nunn’s role was far from limited to scouting the HBC’s under the radar. He also negotiated player contracts and ran the Steelers training camp for several years. But it is his work as a scout that made him famous, as the next section makes clear.

Steelers 1974 Draft: Nunn Helps Author the Greatest NFL Draft in History

The Pittsburgh Steelers 1974 Draft was the best in NFL history bringing the team four Hall of Famers named Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster.

Nunn had a pivotal role in helping the Steelers identify Stallworth, who was a college student at Alabama A&M, first feigning illness and then helping hoard the only tape that existed of Stallworth. Noll had had his eye on Stallworth for a long time, and wanted him in the first round. Nunn talked him into drafting Swann.

Then Noll wanted him in the second. Art Rooney Jr. protested, recommending Lambert. The Steelers had dealt their third round pick, but Nunn coolly assured Noll “’The average (team) isn’t looking at him like we are.’”

The Steelers had to sweat out the third round, but when the 4th arrived, Stallworth was there, and the rest is history.

Pillar of the Steelers Franchise

Nunn continued to work in the scounting department until he “retired in 1987.” For a few years he and his wife wintered in Florida and returned to Pittsburgh, but eventually tired of the snowbird’s life.

  • And that “retirement” was in name only. 

Nunn continued to work in the Steelers scouting department as a Senior Assistant of Player Personnel, evaluating video and participating in the Steelers draft War Room, which is appropriately titled “The Bill Nunn Draft Room.”

Make no mistake about it, Nunn’s role wasn’t as a figure head or elder statesman, he was an active participant of the Steelers scouting team. In fact, as reported by Andrew Conte of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Nunn suffered his stroke while evaluating players on the South Side.

Kevin Colbert would send young scouts to study film or watch tapes at Nunn’s side. As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola wrote on steelers.com

Around the Steelers organization, it was no secret that if you sat next to Bill Nunn and kept your mouth shut and your ears open you would walk away knowing more than you did when you first sat down.

For the firs time since 1947, Bill Nunn’s chair will be empty for the Steelers on draft day. His presence will be missed. Steel Curtain Rising offers its sympathy, thoughts and prayers to Nunn’s wife and children.

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Steelers Nation Bids Farewell to L.C. Greenwood; The Steel Curtain Stands at Quarter Strength

Pittsburgh was never always synonymous with “Defense.” Chuck Noll began to changing that in 1969.

Noll inherited the 4th pick in the 1969 NFL draft thanks to Bill Austin’s “error” in not allowing him to pick O.J. Simpson. The Emperor picked Joe Greene instead in the first round.

  • Piece one of the Steel Curtain was in place
  • Nine rounds later he added piece two:  L.C. Greenwood

In 1971 he added Dwight White in the 4th round and then Ernie Holmes 4 rounds later.

And in an ironic twist of destiny, the good Lord has decided to take them back from us in reverse order.

Art Rooney Jr. Finds the Man with the Yellow Shoes

Chuck Noll employed many means in transforming the Pittsburgh Steelers from doormat to dominance. But one often overlooked aspect is his total colorblindness when it came to selecting players.

  • Noll didn’t care if you were black, white, yellow, or purple, he only cared if you could play.

With Noll’s attitude and Bill Nunn’s connections in the HBC network the Steelers uncovered gem after gem in the drafts of early 70’s while many other teams handicapped themselves with color quotas.

Art Rooney Jr., head of the Steelers scouting department, fully embraced this philosophy, having fought Noll’s predecessors who refused to pick African American players simply because they had already taken two of “them.”

And so it was that Art Rooney Jr. found himself on the campus of Arkansas A&M in late 1968. He was down there to check out some halfback whose name history has forgotten. He was also interested in looking at a defensive end named Clarence Washington.

But while he was watching tape of Washington, some other kid caught his attention. The kid was 6’6”. Rooney had noted that the kid was too tall for his position. Defensive ends that tall aren’t supposed to have leverage.

  • But this kid had leverage, and nothing stopped him in getting to the quarterback.

The Kid’s name was LC Greenwood, and he became the second most recognizable name on famed Steel Curtain Defense.

Unlike Greene, Greenwood didn’t start immediately, but when he did break the Steelers starting lineup in 1971 he made noise, quickly. Greenwood:

When Greenwood was cut by the Steelers in 1982 he had 73.5 sacks, then a franchise high and still the number two mark.

  • Steelers Digest described Greenwood as “Cool. Confident. Smooth.”

How confident?

Shortly before the 1974 AFC Championship game, Greenwood sat in the hallway outside the lock room in the Oakland Coliseum watching the Vikings and the Rams duke it out for the NFL crown. Gene Upshaw walked by and asked, “Whatta watchin LC?”

  • Greenwood deadpanned:  “Just watching to see who we’re going to play in the Super Bowl.”

Greenwood was also a leader both on and off the field, and one of the first Super Steelers to find commercial success. His Miller Light commercials were legendary.

But like so many of the Super Steelers, Greenwood’s off the field success was not simply a bi-product of his on the field fame. Chuck Noll wanted self-starters and hard workers on his team, and those traits carried the Super Steelers to success off it.

Greenwood was no exception, founding Greenwood Enterprises, which operated out of West Main Street in Carnegie and worked in engineering, coal, natural gas and highway operations. After that he led Greenwood-McDonald Supply Co., Inc., which supplied of electrical equipment to retail outlets and manufacturers.

The Steel Curtain a Band of Brothers

The quartet of Greene, Greenwood, White and Holmes started out as teammates. They grew to be friends and ultimately brothers, sticking close together long after their playing days ended.

Dwight White’s wife recalled Joe Greene being so upset he could not even speak when he learned of “Mad Dog’s” death. And the first two people at White’s funeral were Greene and Greenwood.

White of course had gone into the hospital for back surgery, and ended up dying of a lung clot. As reported by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, the normally upbeat Greenwood told Joe Greene he was apprehensive about his own back surgery due to what had happened to White.

But Greenwood, hobbled by a back injury, in pain and walking around on a walker and needed the surgery. Midway through the Steelers embarssing 0-4 loss in London to the Vikings, Greene got a call from Mel Blount informing him that Greenwood had died of kidney failure.

Now only Joe Greene remains, and the Steel Curtain permanently stands at quarter strength.

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Steelers Say Hello to Haley, Good Bye to Battle, Bryant McFadden

The Pittsburgh Steelers named Todd Haley their new offensive coordiantor this week, ending a lengthy search process to replace Bruce Arians.

As they said hello to a familiar face, Haley is in fact the son of Dick Haley who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn as the team’s director of player personnel during the drafts of the 1970’s, they also began what will likely be a lengthy, and at times painful series of good byes.

The Steelers are projected to be 10 to 15 million dollars over the NFL’s salary cap for 2012. To get under the team will need to clear a lot of space, and the only way to do that is to part ways with veterans, many of whom will walk out the door past two Super Bowl trophies that they had a hand in winning.

The process began today as the Steelers waived Bryant McFadden and Arnz Battle. McFadden was a rookie in Super Bowl XL and a starter in Super Bowl XLIII. He departed to Arizona after 2008, but returned via trade during the 2010 NFL Draft. McFadden was often injured during his second stint with the Steelers, although he did remain a consistent special teams contributor during the 2011 season.

Battle was one of the members brought in by the Steelers suprise 2010 free agent signing spree, and contributed heavily to the improvement on special teams that year. His contributions were missed when he fell injured during the 2011 season, but ultimately salary cap needs made him expendable.

These two cuts were both anticipated and fairly easy.

The next ones promise to be more difficult.

Stay Steel Curtain Rising will be commenting on those as they happen, as well as offering commentary on both Todd Haley and Bruce Arians’ departure.

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