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Labriola on Day 2 of the NFL Draft

Posted Apr 28, 2017

On Day 2, the Steelers added a combative WR, a cover-corner, and Le'Veon's backup.

Thursday is the one with the red carpet and the green room, and Saturday is the one with the sleepers and the interesting stories. But if a team is going to ace the test that is the annual NFL Draft, it will be because of what it does on Friday.

Friday is when the second and third rounds of the NFL Draft are picked, and if the names aren’t as recognizable and the signing bonuses aren’t as lucrative as is the case on Thursday, the players added to the roster from those rounds often end up being the difference in how much a particular class ends up contributing to the overall upgrade of the team’s roster.

Looking at some recent Steelers draft classes, how the team did on Friday ends up serving as a decent barometer of the impact the group had on the team, both good and bad. Last year, as an example, it was Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave who were added on Friday, and the 2016 class is viewed as one that had an immediate positive impact on the defense. On the flip side, the 2012 draft began with the selection of David DeCastro but then the momentum was lost when neither Mike Adams nor Sean Spence ended up being what the Steelers had hoped, albeit for different reasons.

This Steelers’ Friday contained three picks, and the team added USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on the second round, and then Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton and Pitt running back James Conner with their two picks in the third round.

After the Steelers had addressed their pass rush by selecting T.J. Watt during Thursday’s first round, it seemed safe to assume the team might focus on looking for reinforcements for the defensive backfield starting with the second round, where it had the 62nd overall pick. But one of the fallacies of the 2017 draft turned out to be that since there was such depth of talent in the defensive backfield, teams would be willing to wait to pick from the group, since the guys available in the third round wouldn’t necessarily be all that worse than the guys picked early in the second round, for example.

By the time the Steelers were on the clock in the second round, there had been a record 18 defensive backs picked. In the second round alone, there were 11 defensive backs, 18 defensive players overall, picked among the first 29 selections.

A WR TO MAKE COMBAT CATCHES
In that climate, the Steelers turned to another area – possibly an under-picked area – and chose Smith-Schuster to make him the sixth wide receiver picked.

“I think he’s the youngest (player) in the draft,” said offensive coordinator Todd Haley about Smith-Schuster, who won’t celebrate his 21st birthday until Nov. 22. “As you know in the last few years, we’ve had good success with young guys like him. We feel like we’re getting them early enough to really make an impact on their development. He is a good-sized receiver. He was very productive out there at USC. He is really a do-it-all guy. He can play inside, outside. If you had to say what he excelled at, I’d say his ability to catch the ball in combative situations, 50/50 balls as we call them, and he usually comes down with them.”

Certainly, pass defense was an issue for the Steelers in their loss in the AFC Championship Game, but so was what the team lined up at wide receiver besides Antonio Brown. Dropped passes were an issue in that game against the Patriots, and the Steelers believed they needed to reinforce the position during this offseason. Theoretically, that happened over the course of this past week with the conditional reinstatement of Martavis Bryant and the selection of Smith-Schuster on the second round of this draft.

If making combat catches is what Smith-Schuster does best, his blocking and physical play on the edge for the running game is another of his attributes. In the recent past, the Steelers found a lot of success with a wide receiver who wasn’t going to win any track meets but made up for that with his ability to make combat catches and his physical play. Comparing Smith-Schuster to Hines Ward is both unfair and premature, but so far there is some similarity in terms of approach to the job.

“I will say he is into football. He plays with a great passion,” said Haley. “You can see it on the tape when you watch him. Those are guys I get excited about, and we get excited about. It’s great to see a receiver who’s not afraid to go in there and mix it up. We have a very good running back in Le’Veon Bell, and part of what makes that run game go is having guys out there on the perimeter who do their job in the run game also.”

Smith-Schuster left USC ranked fourth in school history with 213 catches, and he had at least one reception in each of his 40 college games, which included 39 starts.

“They have so many great talents, but I have the opportunity to have mentors in those guys to learn as a young player coming in and coming up,” said Smith-Schuster. “I will do anything possible to bring the Steelers back to the Super Bowl, whether that’s on special teams, being a backup or a role player, anything that it takes.”

LOOKING FOR MAN-COVERAGE CBs
The Steelers would re-focus themselves on pass defense with their first pick of the third round with the selection of Sutton on the first of their two third-round picks.

A 5-foot-11, 188-pound cornerback who comes with the ability to play outside or inside in the slot, according to defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, Sutton became the 25th defensive back chosen over the first 94 selections.

“He does a good job of mirroring the receiver,” said Lake. “He stays close, and that shows in his productivity as a corner for Tennessee over the years of his career. He has led his team and is the all-time leader in passes defensed for Tennessee. He knows how to cover, he stays close, and that is something that we’ve been looking for in the draft.”

Lake said another quality the Steelers have been looking for in cornerbacks is an ability to be effective in man-coverage so that the defense isn’t as limited in the calls it can make during the courses of games.

“At least speaking for myself, I think versatility in a defensive back is something you always should look for, the ability to be able to call any defense and the defensive back should be able to draw upon his skills to be able to handle that,” said Lake. “I think that just comes with drafting the right guys. I think this is a good attempt, especially in the third round, of getting someone who can help us do that.”

Sutton finished his career at Tennessee with 45 starts, in which he contributed 127 tackles, including 13 for loss, seven interceptions, three forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. He also averaged 14.6 yards on 45 punt returns, and he brought three of those back for touchdowns.

“I am very comfortable (playing man-to-man),” said Sutton. “That’s something I did pretty much every play in college. We played man, single-high, or some form of man coverage on every single play. And played some zone. So I am very comfortable with playing press-man or off-man.”

LE’VEON’S BACKUP
Another area the Steelers sought to address during this draft was finding a backup for Le’Veon Bell. With DeAngelo Williams hitting his mid-30s and being an unrestricted free agent, it wasn’t exactly a secret that this draft would be used in an attempt to fill that role.

With their second pick of the third round, they got their man for that job in Conner, who is well known to the organization since the University of Pittsburgh shares the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex with the Steelers. Conner, 6-1, 233, left Pitt as the school’s No. 2 rusher, behind Tony Dorsett, with 3,733 yards, to go along with 52 rushing touchdowns in his 39 college games.

Conner was the 2014 ACC Player of the Year, and then in December 2015, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. By May 2016, he announced he was cancer-free, and during Pitt’s 2016 season, he rushed for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns on 216 carries, while adding 21 catches for another 302 yards and four more touchdowns.

“This is not a story about sentiment,” said running backs coach James Saxon. “This is a story about a young man who is a very good football player, and I hope that the guys we play against are sentimental, because (Conner) is going to share with them some sentimental, physical things.”