Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Draft ‘n ‘At

Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls are satisfied with the Steelers’ new crop of draft picks and undrafted free agents.

Lost in the day-after wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Steelers’ failure to draft a running back was the fact that on Monday they did add a running back (two, actually) among the crop of undrafted free agents.

We predict one of them will make the team. That would be Gary Russell, running back from the University of Minnesota.

Why did Russell go undrafted? Well, for one, he didn’t play last year. Injured? No. Too small, too slow? No, and no. Buried on the depth chart, a la Willie Parker at North Carolina? Again, no.

Gary Russell didn’t play last year because he was ruled academically ineligible.

He dropped out of school.

That took him out of the spotlight and almost completely off the radar screen. So, give the Steelers credit for signing this guy. Maybe they had a deal worked out before the draft.

They must have had competition. This guy was no secret.

When he played for the Golden Gophers during the 2006 season, Ross started only game but split time in the backfield with Laurence Maroney, last year’s number one draft choice of the New England Patriots. Maroney and Ross each went over 1,000 yards rushing, and Ross scored 19 touchdowns for Minnesota, 18 on the ground.

This followed a stellar high school career in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. In Russell’s senior year, he rushed for more than 2,100 yards and scored 29 touchdowns, the same number of touchdowns he scored as a junior.

For more details, check out the “strengths” and “weaknesses” listed in his “Prospect Profile” on NFL.com, which compares him to Dallas’s Marion Barber, who’s a pretty good football player, and also had this to say:

“Russell actually looks a bit like a former Cowboy, Emmitt Smith, as he has excellent explosion and cutback ability, along with that low center of gravity that makes it tough for defenders to attack his legs.”

If anything, Russell reminds us of Kenny Irons, the Auburn running back drafted in the second round by the Bengals. In any case, Gary Russell is an intriguing prospect, to say the least. The Steelers did well to sign him, and we don’t feel so bad about them not drafting a running back.

Which brings us back to the draft.

First round: Lawrence Timmons: Aside from being small, slow, raw and inexperienced, and having Drew Rosenhaus as his agent, what’s not to like?

As noted in this space before the draft, we would have preferred to see the Steelers draft Purdue’s Anthony Spencer, so it will be interesting to see how their respective careers play out. For us, Timmons will always be measured against Spencer and Jarvis Moss (who went just two picks later), as well as two linebackers who went in last year’s draft: Ernie Sims, his predecessor at Florida State, who went number nine overall to Detroit and led the team in tackles his rookie year; and Camerion Wimbley, who went number 13 overall last year and has the look of a mainstay on the Browns’ defense for many years to come.

Second Round: While we are less than enthralled with the Timmons selection, we are very happy that the Steelers were able to add Lamarr Woodley, DE/LB, Michigan, with their second pick. As noted here before the draft – again we were hoping Woodley, 6-1-1/2, 266, would end up in black and gold … but we figured he’d be gone by pick number 46 overall, so we’re thrilled the Steelers had the good sense to pick him when he was still there. He won the Lombardi Award, the Hendricks Award, and more. He’s a winner, and we expect the Steelers to use him initially in a three-point stance to RUSH THE PASSER off the left edge. Excellent pick.

Third round: Matt Spaeth, tight end, University of Minnesota. This is a head-scratcher. At least, like Woodley, Spaeth, 6-7, 270, won the major individual award (The Mackey Award) for his position as the best tight end in the country, so he’s got that going for him. As for how he might fit into the Steelers’ plans, we should get used to seeing some new schemes now that the Tomlin-Arians era is here. Perhaps multiple tight end sets, with either Spaeth or Heath Miller serving as a slot receiver? We shall see.

Fourth Round: Daniel Sepulveda, P, Baylor. Not to say, “told you so,” but once again we wrote in this space before the draft that we hoped the Steelers would draft either Sepulveda or Adam Podlesh (Maryland). Of course, Ryan Smith over at HeelsSoxSteelers has been trumpeting this pick for months. Like Woodley and Spaeth, Sepulveda won the top award for his position – The Ray Guy Award – which he won not once, but twice, a first for that award. So, we were gratified the Steelers drafted Sepulveda. That they traded up to do so only underscored the urgency of landing this guy after Jacksonville drafted Podlesh, who rated marginally higher as a slightly better technician with no career blocks. Anyway, Sepulveda is a beast who kicks the ball consistently long, with good hang time and down-placement technique. We like this pick a lot, as the Steelers are long overdue for upgrading the play of all special teams. Apparently, Coach Tomlin truly believes that special teams matter, and so do we.

Fourth Round: Ryan McBean, DL, 6-4 1/2, 285, Oklahoma State. We like this pick a lot. We saw McBean play some for Oklahoma State, and he impressed. He’s a versatile guy who should get to play inside as well as outside. Good pick, and good value at this spot.

Fifth Round: Cameron Stephenson, G, 6-3, 306, Rutgers. Maybe a bit of a development project, but the Steelers absolutely needed to shore up depth along the offensive line, and this guy should help. Hey, somebody was clearing holes for Rutgers’ running game, which was among the best in the nation last year.

Fifth Round: William Gay, CB, Louisville. No problem with this pick. The guy comes from a good program and displayed good ball skills. He’ll see a lot of action on special teams.

Seventh Round — Dallas Baker, WR, 6-3, 209, Florida. According to the Post-Gazette, “The Steelers liked Baker because of his size, the fact he started two seasons and was productive for a big-time school and defending national champions.” Hey, for a seventh-round choice, that sounds pretty good.

The Steelers also signed some intriguing receivers from D2 schools as undrafted free agents. Long shots, all, but it’s always fun to watch whether any of these guys will emerge from the pack.