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Labriola on 'the next Troy,' draft recap

Posted May 5, 2017

Looking for the next (insert great player's name here) is a fool's errand.

Ready or not, here it comes:

* Maybe I’m crazy, but I was happy the Steelers didn’t have a chance to pick Jabrill Peppers. I don’t really know how highly the Steelers had Peppers rated, or whether he would’ve been chosen over T.J. Watts, but I just never understood what was so attractive about Peppers.

* His versatility made for some interesting highlights, but too much of that stuff would devolve into gimmickry in the NFL, and exactly how much value would Peppers as a running back bring to a team that already employs Le’Veon Bell?

* But what really made no sense to me were the assertions, the belief, that Peppers would become “the next Troy Polamalu.” Based on what, I have no idea, but the whole concept of chasing “the next (insert name of great player here)” is a fantasy. When has that ever worked out in sports? Any sport? Even with any coach in any sport?

* There’s a chance that a football team might have one great quarterback follow another, or have one great receiver follow another, but the idea that there can be a duplication of style, to me, can be the kind of thing that bogs down a front office with a fool’s errand.

* The next Joe Greene? The next Sandy Koufax? The next Jack Ham? The next Michael Jordan? The next Mel Blount? Those players were singular talents and unique individuals, and any effort made to duplicate what they once contributed or who they once were as players is wasted time. They were one of a kind. That’s what made them so special in the first place.

* The next Chuck Noll? Imagine the waste of time and effort and talent on the roster if Dan Rooney went searching for that instead of simply hiring the best man for the job among the available candidates. Bill Cowher was an emotional and demonstrative coach on the sideline, and he saw value in motivating his players, which in fact made him the polar opposite of Noll, who regularly told his players, “If I have to motivate you, I’ll fire you.”

* The same with Mike Tomlin in following Cowher. The differences in their sideline demeanors are evident, and yet both men found ways to be successful while staying true to themselves. The last coach the Steelers hired before turning things over to Noll was a former Packers assistant named Bill Austin, who came to Pittsburgh and tried to do the job the way he had seen Vince Lombardi do it in Green Bay. Austin was 11-28-3 and fired after three seasons.

* Maybe Peppers develops into an All-Pro player, but if that happens it won’t be because he’s the next Troy Polamalu. It will be because he maximized his abilities as the first Jabrill Peppers, and my fear was that in Pittsburgh there would’ve been too much interest in looking for him to be The Next Troy Polamalu. Maybe by the coaches in how he would have been deployed, but definitely by the fans in what was expected in terms of impact and style of play.

* Of the Steelers’ eight draft choices, three made pre-draft visits to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex: Joshua Dobbs, James Conner, and Keion Adams. And it’s worth noting that Conner, because he attended Pitt, was considered a local prospect and didn’t even count against the limit of 30 visitors. Some additional perspective: the team’s No. 1, No. 2, No. 3a, No. 5, and No. 6 picks did not visit.

* Keep this in mind next year when some website pirating the Steelers name and logo breathlessly informs the public about pre-draft visitors, with the implication that there is some direct correlation between visitors and picks.

* On the Monday before the draft began, General Manager Kevin Colbert assessed the talent pool this way: “On offense, there are good numbers at wide receiver. The offensive line probably isn’t as deep as it has been in recent years. The tight end numbers are up some over recent years. There are good numbers in the secondary. There are good numbers for the outside linebacker candidates. Decent numbers for the defensive line.”

* To attach numbers to his assessment, there were 15 combined guards and centers picked, 32 receivers, 56 defensive backs, and 32 linebackers.

* One of the fallacies of this draft was the notion that it would be OK for a team looking for help in the defensive backfield to wait before picking one because there was such depth of talent there. History might prove that there in fact was a lot of depth of talent among the defensive backfield prospects, but teams certainly didn’t wait long to pick from that pool.

* There were 30 defensive backs among the first 101 overall picks (29.7 percent), and at the time of the Steelers’ second-round pick, which was the 62nd overall, they were looking at the 20th overall defensive back vs. the sixth overall wide receiver, as an example. When Oakland made Obi Melifonwu the 24th pick of the second round, the 56th pick overall, it represented an all-time NFL Draft record for number of defensive backs selected to that point.

* Viewed in this light, it’s easy to understand why the Steelers saw JuJu Smith-Schuster as a better value at that point of the draft.

* Smith-Schuster won’t be 21 until mid-November, and so when you watch his college highlights from 2016 understand that he was doing a good bit of that as a 19-year-old.

* The first of the team’s two third round picks – Tennessee cornerback Cam Sutton – made quite an impression on the Steelers when they spent time with him during his Pro Day. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler sat with Sutton, and as the two watched video the coach quizzed the player about what he was seeing and what he was doing on a series of plays. Before long, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert also joined this little party, and at that time Sutton started explaining to the three of them the assignment for every player on the Volunteers’ defense on each particular play. That level of understanding of the whole defense and his ability to communicate his understanding in a clear, concise, and complete way impressed the Steelers.

* Everyone knows the story about Pitt running back James Conner, about how he was the 2014 ACC Player of the Year, and then in December 2015, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. By May 2016, Conner 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.

* Steelers running backs coach James Saxon added this commentary following the pick: “This is not a story about sentiment. 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.”

* As soon as the Steelers selected quarterback Joshua Dobbs on the fourth round, that spelled the end of Zach Mettenberger’s brief time with the team. Claimed off waivers before the start of the 2016 regular season, the only impression Mettenberger made on the Steelers was not a good one, and he never was going to be more than the No. 3 quarterback here.

* Picking Dobbs set up the quarterback situation this way: Ben Roethlisberger will get as much practice/preseason playing time as he needs to be ready for the start of the regular season, with most of the practice reps and preseason games being divided between Landry Jones and Dobbs. Undrafted rookie Nick Schuessler is the fourth arm for the offseason program, camp, and the preseason. Under that scenario, Mettenberger was in the way, and so the Steelers released him shortly after the draft.

* Dobbs is a legitimate rocket scientist as the owner of a degree in aerospace engineering, with a minor is business, and in a recent interview with Peter King, he said, “My senior year I was taking astronautics, propulsion, and an aerodynamics class . . . all on the same day. At the same time as football season when I was leading an SEC team. I think I can handle it.”

* When speaking to the Pittsburgh media, Dobbs explained an internship he squeezed in during his time at Tennessee: “I was in Florida, working on the F-135 engine in the fighter jets. This was a couple of months before the aircraft actually went into action, but there was flight testing. It was a really great opportunity to branch out and learn about the aerospace industry and the most technologically advanced engine ever created, to this day. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

* What the Steelers like about Dobbs was his passion for football to go along with his obvious intelligence, and in evaluating his on-field skills they found him to have an NFL-caliber arm whose accuracy improved during his time as a starter, and he also is someone who can make plays with his legs. One other note: there was no full-time quarterback coach during Dobbs’ time at Tennessee. The quarterbacks were coached by a graduate assistant, and so the belief is that he can improve markedly with individual professional coaching.

* Dobbs also met Roethlisberger during his pre-draft visit to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, and the two already have established something of a rapport. Not that it’s going to be the difference in charting the course of Dobbs’ NFL career because it’s not Roethlisberger’s job to coach Dobbs, but it’s clearly better than the alternative.

* The fifth-round pick was a 6-foot-3, 215-pound cornerback-converted-from-receiver named Brian Allen who has long arms, 4.48 speed, and knows how to make plays on the ball when it’s in the air. He is, however, also very raw and admits to being a poor tackler. One evaluation described him this way, “Too leggy and lean. Looks like a converted receiver – is unrefined, doesn’t have a feel for routes and lacks positional instincts. Is not fluid changing direction. Lacks awareness and gives up too many big plays. Soft, raw, inconsistent converted receiver whose measurables warrant a camp invite, but tape evaluation is less-than-flattering, and he has a long way to go before he looks like a competent NFL defensive back.”

* Oops. Typed the wrong evaluation. That one was Richard Sherman’s when he was coming out of Stanford in 2011.

* Not saying Brian Allen is the next Richard Sherman, but when it gets to the fifth round and defensive backs already have been picked at a record rate, taking a chance on a size-speed project who is best in man-coverage and had four interceptions and 10 passes defensed in 2016 and will play most of 2017 as a 23-year-old isn’t such a bad idea.

* I already am on record as saying I believe there’s more to the selection of long-snapper Colin Holba than simply providing competition for Greg Warren, but understand that in 2015 Bill Belichick spent a fifth-round pick on a long-snapper from Navy, and nobody batted an eye.

* With the final pick, the Steelers went with Keion Adams, an upside-pass-rushing outside linebacker, who posted 13 sacks over his final two seasons at Western Michigan. And so it ended for the Steelers the way it began, with an effort to juice their pass rush.

* And in an attempt to tie a bow around the Steelers’ three days, Tomlin said, “You hear Kevin mention it all the time: Hearts and smarts. A lot of these guys excel in those areas. They display a tremendous passion for the game in their play. They are smart, accomplished young men, not only in the game of football, but outside the game of football. Rocket scientists and so forth.”

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