Steelers Thoughts #2 (5/9/14): Draft, Punk…

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Quite a bit to chew on and mull over following a wild and woolly first round of the NFL draft that saw the Cleveland Browns careening all over the board, trading down then back up, twice, that saw three teams select their presumed QBs of the future, that saw ESPN trot out a group of on air talent that was the human equivalent of a black hole from which only bottomless Johnny Manziel speculation could escape, and then dutifully cut to a reaction shot from Johnny Football every time a pick happened to bypass him (as 21 did) or a commercial break dramatically ended. In the final analysis, the Texans got their overhyped genetic freak, the Bills made waves to grab a coveted receiver, lots of folks got highly touted left tackles you’ll probably never hear of again, and, at #15, the Steelers saw a draft board improbably shape up for realz the way we as fans had been conditioned to want it, only for said fans to once again receive the rude reminder that we, in fact, do not make the personnel decisions here. It was night to dispense with conventional wisdom and go on instinct.

With the 15th pick in the 2014 Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select Ryan Shazier, Linebacker, Ohio State

One of the many issues I’ve had with the 118-year-long offseason the NFL is currently staggering through is that the phenomenon of draft speculation and “mock drafts” has become so persistent and prolific that it’s lost all sense of actual value, and has instead twisted fan expectations to a perhaps unhealthy degree. I used to care about mocks much more than I do now, but that was back when the draft was in late April and was an all-weekend binge I actively anticipated for months. Now that it’s been moved another two weeks into the future and spread out over the course of three days – two of them prime time weeknights! – so much of my interest has been replaced by fatigue. Mock drafts still offer interesting and at times valuable outside perspective, and I tend to devour every one of them I can, because I’m both interested and restless, but this build up was so interminable, with so many disparate prospects at half a dozen positions (CB, WR, DL, TE, LB, OL) linked to us then yanked away. You can’t fix every hole in your team with a single pick. Conventional wisdom eventually built within the fanbase and the mock community that the Steelers needed to go CB in the first round, and it only took a brief glance of our comparatively bare positional cupboard at the position to get on board with that thinking. Two of the three CB prospects we’d been most linked to were off the board by the time of the #15 pick, but the third, Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard, an award winner who many stated was the most traditionally Steeler-like option of the three, was still available.

Then, shockingly, the heading to this section happened, and everyone paused for a moment of quiet reflection…

Certain curmudgeons might call me a Ryan Shazier “apologist” here, but that heavily implies I have something to apologize for, a premise I reject completely. Again, preset expectations, though I do get the umbrage. I don’t think the pick as made was quite the ideal marriage of draft value and burning need. Perhaps we could’ve traded down and still gotten our man. But I’m increasingly convinced that Shazier was our man all along. He reportedly had impressive pre-draft visits with the team, OSU and the Steelers share some defensive concepts that theoretically make transitioning to the pros easier, and then, well, just look at him. He ran a sub-4.4 40-yard dash, has excellent instincts and lateral movement, an innate understanding of angles, and a motor that never stops. Shazier led the Buckeyes in tackling in back-to-back years, routinely racking up 15 or more per game. Anyone who thinks the Steelers are set at linebacker (where he’ll likely replace 6th-round overachiever Vince Williams at weakside ILB) or couldn’t use a potentially dynamic defensive playmaker certainly didn’t watch our defense last year with any regularity. Shazier wasn’t linked to the Steelers in the 1.2 million mock drafts I read with anything approaching the regularity of the three top corners, or UNC TE Eric Ebron, or even Michigan OT Taylor Lewan (four of whom were already off the board by the time we picked, not that I think it would’ve mattered), but I did see him show up in several. Head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert fielded questions during the post-pick press conference about Shazier’s speed, playmaking ability and football IQ with goofy smiles on their faces and an air about them that suggested they’d just successfully stolen something. If those reports that surfaced immediately after on Twitter suggesting that Dallas already had Shazier’s name ready to submit at #16 but were blindsided by the Steelers instead are to be believed, maybe they did.

DVR is the only way to watch the Draft. There’s just such a disproportionate amount of muck to wade through otherwise. I started late and unfortunately had the Steelers pick spoiled for me by social media when I overestimated where things should stand at 9:45. A good friend of mine then called right at ten to discuss the pick with me, and so we did for a little less than an hour, as I stared at Roger Goodell’s face frozen on my TV screen. I too feel the lingering uncertainty of our lacking CB corps* (heightened after the hated Bengals had top CB #3, the aforementioned Dennard, fall into their laps at #24), but, after some initial emotional wrangling and contemplation, I came around on the Shazier pick pretty quickly. It helps in that regard that I’m a Buckeye fan as well as a Steeler fan, obviously. I’ve watched him fly around the field every Saturday for the last three years, and have often daydreamed about seeing him wear black and yellow on Sunday. I knew he was potentially something special, though I waited with amused anticipation to unpause my DVR and hear the ESPN brain trust tear into the pick as a reach. Surprisingly, they didn’t. Shazier at #15 was maybe a bit of a stretch in their eyes, but he was a tackling machine, a marvelous athlete and a football guy. I couldn’t have agreed more, even if it was with Ray Lewis.** Things were a little less grounded on social media, where I made the mistake of commenting on the Steelers’ “Welcome” facebook thread. It was in response there that I was informed in a dozen different chattering tongues that the pick was a mistake, that we didn’t need a playmaking LB, that Sean Spence, now that he has been cleared to play in his first ever regular season game following two years spent recovering from a career-threatening knee injury, is the obvious future, that OSU players are good for little more than getting stabbed (such timely wit), that Shazier wouldn’t see the field for three years, that Cam Heyward (a fiery breakout player I had the temerity to compare to Shazier in terms of potential) had underperformed up to now, and a few other things I would attempt to parse if I had any care to. I enjoy life, and my blissful current lack of headache, too much to respond. Welcome aboard, Ryan!

*The Steelers “Draft Day Big Board” at news site Behind the Steel Curtain is continually updated and a fairly indispensable resource for seeing how today’s second and third rounds might play out. The board lists seven available WRs as value picks by the time the Steelers draft in round 2, and 7 corners by our compensatory pick in round 3. I think the WR need has been overblown, personally, since we still don’t know what we have in Markus Wheaton (or Derek Moye for that matter), and since Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey have also joined in the offseason. I wouldn’t be surprised if a high profile defensive lineman falls to us at #14, a Nix or Hageman or Tuitt, and we address CB in round 3 (where we normally do). More agita for the fan base. Have faith, I beg you. 

**The following stats were forwarded by the friend I mentioned (H/T Buckeye news site Eleven Warriors), and seem, to me, to be pretty hard to discount with a straight face: Shazier finished the 2013 season with 143 tackles, sixth-most nationally, and tied for 13th on the Ohio State single season charts. He also had 22.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and four forced fumbles. In a win over Indiana, he recorded 20 tackles, including school records for solo tackles (16) and tackles for loss (five). Shazier’s 101 solo tackles ranked third nationally. It was the third-highest total in program history behind Tom Cousineau’s 142 in 1978 and Chris Spielman’s 105 in 1986. Shazier tallied 315 career tackles, placing 14th in school history.

Other Stuff Happened

I know they’re (kind of) his college colors, but it sure seemed to me, with his orange tie and the interesting, unreadable orange pin on his suit lapel, that Clemson WR Sammy Watkins thought he was headed to Cleveland at #4. We might never know if the feeling was mutual, since the Buffalo Bills swooped in with a hard sell trade offer and scooped him up instead. The Browns, having traded down this year in the deal, later traded back up to snag Justin Gilbert, one of the top CBs long associated with Pittsburgh. That’s the leverage that having 211 picks grants you. As a Steelers fan, I never like the prospect of the Browns (or any AFC North team) having two first round picks, as the Browns did this year and will next year, but I’m at least hopeful that they’ll sorely regret passing on Watkins. He and Josh Gordon sharing the same formation would’ve been a truly unnerving prospect, no matter who was getting them the ball.

That “he” in this case is, of course, the “royal he”, Johnny Football himself, who last night became the third Browns QB of the future to be drafted at #22 since 2007. I remember following with growing delight the odyssey of avowed Browns superfan and monosyllabic nutritional supplement pitchman Brady Quinn during his freefall 8 years ago, and of course current 43-year-old Cowboys backup Brandon Weeden – who a friend of mine saw in person at the 2012 Memorial Tournament decked out in all orange and looking like a giant traffic cone – was run out of town after a mere two seasons at the helm. So, the good news: Manziel sure has a lot of legacy to live up to. The bad news: He actually has all the tools and more to legitimately surpass that legacy in a way that won’t leave Browns fans disgruntled. All they have to do is coach him up, give him air, and keep expectations in check. So maybe that’s part of the good news after all. This is a fanbase, you’ll remember, that broke its collective back voting Peyton Hillis onto the cover of Madden ’12, only for the team to cut him later that year.

Bill Nunn

In conclusion, I offer my condolences to the family and innumerable friends of longtime Steelers Scout Bill Nunn, who recently died at age 89 from stroke complications. Nunn left a career in journalism to become a full-time scout for the Steelers in 1969 and was helping finalize this year’s draft board at the time of his passing. Nunn was a major figure in identifying, validating and opening up traditionally black colleges as sources of excellent potential NFL talent during a time when such ideas were still widely discounted or at least controversial. He is credited in most circles for his vital evaluation role in building the Steelers’ 1970s dynasty, which won four Super Bowls in six years due in large part to infusions of talent like Mel Blount, John Stallworth, and L.C. Greenwood, all future stars from under the radar colleges.

The recent NFL Network special on the 1974 Draft, whose bounty netted the Steelers four future Hall of Famers and is widely considered the best return in the sport’s history, spent a little time on just how enamored coach Chuck Noll was with Alabama A&M’s Stallworth – which was apparently enough to take him in the first round, if the accounts are accurate. That the team was able to snag Lynn Swann instead and still be able to get Stallworth in the third says a lot about the tenor of the times. Bill Nunn’s evaluation skills and belief in the potential of these young men, both on and off the field, cut through the fog of tradition and helped power his team to a sustained level of success that is still without equal in the annals of the game. “Very few people had a bigger impact in the history of our franchise than did Bill Nunn,” said Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney. “We have lost a great friend and a great person.” The draft continues of course, tonight and throughout the weekend, and the Steelers brain trust will operate out of The Bill Nunn Draft Room at team headquarters, as they have for years now.

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