Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Upon Further Review

Most observers, pundits and would-be draftniks, yours truly included, agreed that this year’s NFL draft class was thin at the top but deep throughout, particularly at several key positions (offensive line, wideout and cornerback in particular).

With that in mind, Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls (among others) figured the Steelers would probably stay put at at the end of the first round but might trade down in subsequent rounds. They did, kinda, with just one move, the trade of their pick at the end of the second round (No. 2.32) and their pick at the end of the fourth round at No. 4.32 (132nd overall) to Denver, in exchange for a pair of third-round picks, which the Black ‘n Gold braintrust used to pick up a guard/tackle (Kraig Urbik) at No. 3.15 (79th overall) and a wide receiver/kick returner (Mike Wallace) at No. 3.20 (84th overall).

Quite a few other franchises also took the trade-down-to-add-value approach, including New England (any surprise there?). Perhaps nobody did so more aggressively than the Cleveland Browns’ new management team, who took the approach to an extreme by trading down three times in the first round to stockpile bodies (not that it will do them much good). In fact, as if anticipating that the Steelers were eyeing Alex Mack, C, California, Cleveland, snatched Mack with what turned out to be their first-round pick, the 21st overall (1.21) – having forsaken the opportunity to draft a franchise quarterback, Mark Sanchez with Pick No. 1.5, which they traded to the Jets for three fringe players and two draft picks. If Sanchez goes to the Hall of Fame, Cleveland fans will rue the day. Detroit fans, too, for that matter.

On the other hand, there’s always Brady Quinn, right? Right??

By the way, we still haven’t figured out why Sanchez was never in the discussion to go first overall, to Detroit, instead of Matt Stafford. Arm strength? That alone?? Can't help but wonder whether Detroit would have selected Stafford over, say, Joe Montana -- not that Sanchez has done anything to merit comparisons to Joe Montana, but we've all seen plenty of howitzer-armed QBs flame out over the years.

With what had been the Steelers’ 32nd pick in the second round (64th overall), the Broncos selected Richard Quinn, TE, North Carolina, whose specialty reportedly is as a blocking tight end. That seems awfully high to take a blocking tight end – another curious move by the Broncos’ new management team, headed by wunderkind rookie head coach Josh McDaniels, the Belichick protégé who made headlines this offseason by clashing with, and then trading, quarterback Jay Cutler, who is a punk, but still. Maybe the eager McDaniels was the perfect guy for the Steelers to do a deal with, and time will tell.

But then, at the very top of the third round, things got more interesting. With the very next pick after Quinn, the Jets selected Shonn Green, RB, Iowa, who wore black and gold for the Hawkeyes and would have looked very good indeed in a Steelers uniform (even though, as the roster is constructed today, there would be no place for him, as he would be behind Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore on the depth chart.

Other intriguing names chosen in the third round, before the Steelers chose Urbik at 3.15 (79th overall), were Alex Magee, DT, (6‘3”, 298), from Purdue, who went to the Chiefs at 3.3 (67th overall); YouTube phenom Jarron Gilbert, DE (6’5”, 288), from San Jose State, who went to the Bears via a trade with the Seahawks at 3.4 (68th overall); and Glenn Coffee, RB, Alabama, a Shonn Green clone (sort of) who went to the 49ers at 3.10 (74th overall).

Soon thereafter, the Steelers picked Kraig Urbick at 3.15 (79th overall), with one of the two picks they got from the Broncos. Offensive line coach Larry Zeirlein is on record as saying, flat out, that Urbick will compete for the starting right guard spot manned (fairly capably last year) by Darnell Stapleton. Presumably, Urbick will also see some time at training camp practicing at the right tackle position, as well, although he is not expected to vie for a starting job there.

Interestingly, during a radio interview shortly after Urbick’s selection, Zierlein responded to a question about why the Steelers may have passed over Duke Robinson, another highly rated behemoth guard prospect whom some people had speculated might be of interest to the Black ‘n Gold. “His motor doesn’t run fast enough for us,” said Zierleing of Robinson, the nephew of Motown legend Smokey Robinson.

“This guy’s does,” Zierlein added, referring to Urbik.

Five picks later, the Steelers used the second of the picks they picked up from the Broncos on wide receiver Mike Wallace from Mississippi, he of the reported 4.33 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine -- but an even faster 3.77 (??!!!) time in other workouts on presumably faster tracks. By any measure, he's fast.

Notable receivers selected after Wallace, and before the Steelers’ next selection 12 picks later, included: Ramses Barden, WR, a Plaxico Burress clone at 6’6”, 226, selected by the Giants out of Cal Poly at 3.21 (85th overall); another big ‘un, Patrick Turner, WR, 6’5, 223”, selected by the Dolphins out of Southern California at 3.23 (87th overall); and Deon Butler, WR, 5’10” 185, selected by Seattle out of Penn State (3.27 (91st overall).

So, the Steelers passed on those three receiving prospects in favor of Wallace, and that says something about how highly they regard not just his potential as a wideout, but perhaps more importantly, his skills as a dynamic kick returner.

In any case, it will be interesting to see which of the four receivers (Wallace, Barden, Turner and Butler) has the best career as a pro.

The One That Got Away

Lamentably, the Steelers also passed on Rashad Johnson, S, 5’!!”, 203, selected by Ken Whisenhunt’s Arizona Cardinals out of Alabama at 3.31 (95th overall).

You can't get 'em all, but Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls see Rashad Johnson as the one who got away – the one player (who was available) we would have loved to see end up in a Steelers uniform. Having listened to a pre-draft radio interview with Johnson, we couldn’t help but think, “This guy has ‘Steeler’ written all over him.” Johnson played at a big-time winning program and, for what it’s worth, even grew up as a Steelers fan who was the son of a Steelers fan. Post-draft, ESPN’s Todd McShay said he expects Johnson to step into a starting position for the Cardinals right away and to be a stalwart there for years to come.

If you saw the Cardinals porous secondary durng the Super Bowl – which collapsed during the game-winning drive -- you’d have to agree: The Cardinals need help at safety. Still, we hated to see Johnson slip through the cracks -- hated it -- but considering that Whisenhunt, the offensive coordinator for the Steelers’ 2005 Super Bowl winner, runs Pittsburgh West, it’s not all that surprising. He’s been adding former Steelers, and players in the Steelers’ mold, since he took the reins in Phoenix.

Now, having said all that, it will be interesting to observe who will be the better pro: Rashad Johnson, or the two players the Steelers selected ahead of Johnson (Urbick and Wallace) … or for that matter, and perhaps more intriguingly, the player the Steelers selected with the very next pick, cornerback Keenan Lewis, CB (6’, 208), out of Oregon State, whom the Cardinals bypassed in favor of Johnson. Granted, you could make the case that Lewis fills a bigger need at cornerback with the departure of Bryant McFadden (to the Cardinals, coincidentally, via free agency).

Admittedly, we know next to nothing about either Johnson or Lewis. We just find their juxtaposition on the draft board an extremely interesting coincidence, and we can’t help but wonder which of the two players the Steelers would have chosen had both been available.

You could also make the case that the Steelers also have a need at safety, although the now-departed (and unlamented) Anthony Smith made nowhere near the contributions that MacFadden made. Of course, if any of the starters (Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor, William Gay/DeShea Townsend) go down to injury for any significant amount of time, we will all get a chance to start making the Rashad Johnson vs. Keenan Lewis comparisons earlier than we might have liked.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

All in all, we’re content with this draft. The Steelers addressed some long-overlooked needs for:

1) Youth, depth and potential starters on the defensive and offensive lines (Ziggy Hood and Kraig Urbick, particularly; and, for all we know, later-round picks Sonny Harris and A.Q. Shipley).

2) A fast receiver (Mike Wallace) to fill the fourth wideout position, who can also compete for the speed-receiver position that Nate Washington left vacant through his departure via free agency. If Wallace or Limas Sweed can play as well as Washington did last year, we’ll be happy.

3) A cornerback (Keenan Lewis) to step into the role filled last year by William Gay, who takes over the role played by the now-departed Bryant MacFadden.

4) The short-yardage specialist (Frank Summers) they have lacked – and desperately needed -- since Jerome Bettis retired. This was a glaring need last year, and it’s about time they addressed it.

5) A pair of dynamic kick returners in Mike Wallace (kickoffs) and Joe Burnett (punts). Both of these guys are said to be positively electric return guys.

If these guys work out, this will turn out to be a fine draft. Anything else is gravy.


Go, Penguins!