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 Draft James Washington in Second Round, WR from Oklahoma State

Wasting little time in filling a need which they had created less than a day before, the Steelers drafted James Washington in the 2nd round, setting the wide receiver out of Oklahoma State as the replacement for Martavis Bryant, whom the Steelers had dealt to Oakland for a 3rd round pick.

James Washington

James Washington catches a pass against Pitt. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh-Tribune Review

Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fitchner expanded on what the Steelers saw in James Washington:

He likes to go down the yard, that’s the kind of need we were looking for, so we’re pretty excited about him. Martavis could run, obviously. But this is what this guy can do too. He runs fast but he’s also powerful, runs through arm bars.

As Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, the Steelers plan to start James Washington alongside Antonio Brown while playing JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot. Washington described his style of play in these terms:

My strength and being physical with the DB when the ball’s in the air. It comes down to who wants it more and I guarantee I want it more.

If Washington can deliver on that promise, Ben Roethlisberger will be a happy man.

Video Highlights of James Washington

Thanks to the magic of YouTube we have highlight reels of James Washington’s exploits while at Oklahoma:

Unlike their pick of Terrell Edmunds, the Steelers pick of James Washington is drawing praise from draft analysts. Stephen White declared that the Steelers were lucky to have picked someone like James Washington, who describes Washington as the type of receiver who “makes the tough catches look easy.” White also praised Washington as the type of receiver who can function as a deep threat or work as a possession receiver.

In four years at Oklahoma State James Washington set a record with 4,472 receiving yards by averaging 85.9 receiving yards per game.

Welcome to Steelers Nation James Washington.

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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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