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Labriola on trying 'to win the draft'

Posted Apr 6, 2018

Using a No. 1 pick on a QB would seem to be an attempt to "win the draft."

Ready or not, here it comes:

• “Too many scouts are worried about winning the draft. The idea is to win the Super Bowl.”

• There are a lot of wise things Dan Rooney said to me during the years I was fortunate enough to be in his presence daily, but the above seems particularly relevant given where we are on the NFL calendar. The NFL Draft will commence three weeks from yesterday, which means there is still plenty of time for fans to waste theirs on click-bait stories and mock drafts.

• Many of the purveyors of mock drafts are the primary offenders behind the “winning the draft” narrative, because the dramatic moves – trades, reaching for a player or a position – are the ones that attract attention and drive the narrative. And a segment of the fandom eats that up with a rusty spoon.

• For the Steelers in this particular spring, “winning the draft” appears to be focused on the idea of the team spending its first-round pick – the 28th overall selection – on a quarterback.

• At least last spring this quarterback fixation made a little sense, because just months earlier Ben Roethlisberger had refused to commit to playing another season. At that time, Roethlisberger had just turned 35 and had completed his 13th season in the NFL. While it was difficult to believe that he was going to retire, the things he was saying certainly indicated he was thinking about it.

• This spring things appear to be much more certain. Not long after the team’s loss to the Jaguars last January in the AFC Divisional Round, Roethlisberger said publicly that he was interested in playing for three more seasons. While that should’ve put the issue of the Steelers using a premium pick on a quarterback in this upcoming draft to rest, it most assuredly did not do any such thing.

• Likely because of the position, the quarterback issue has gained a lot of traction, and the mock drafts that have assigned one of the members of this class of quarterbacks to the Steelers at No. 28 have fueled the notion that it’s somehow a real possibility.

• Starting with a look at the team’s current depth chart at the position: there is Roethlisberger, who is coming off the kind of season where the idea of him playing three more seems almost conservative; then there is Landry Jones, who despite the perception of him among Steelers fans is a player the team believes is a competent backup who has what would be required to get the team out of a game in the event Roethlisberger was injured and has what would be required to serve as a short-term replacement for Roethlisberger without jeopardizing the season; and then there is Joshua Dobbs, a developmental prospect picked in the fourth round last April.

• Picking a quarterback in this draft would mean that picking Dobbs in last year’s draft was a waste, because Roethlisberger’s roster spot is safe (duh!), Jones isn’t going to be replaced as the primary backup either by a second-year player with no NFL experience whatsoever or a rookie, and the Steelers aren’t going to keep four quarterbacks on their 53-man roster.

• But, suggest those intent on trying to win the draft, the Steelers won’t keep four quarterbacks unless No. 4 can play another position, which is where Lamar Jackson is thrust into the conversation.

• “Jackson can be a Slash 2.0,” is the first verse of the song the draft-winners sing. “He could run the Wildcat, return some punts or kickoffs. Imagine the gadget play possibilities,” is the chorus.

• But to Lamar Jackson and his main advisor, who happens to be his mom, that song is striking all of the wrong chords.

• The following anecdote was related by Jonathan Jones in a story he wrote recently about Jackson for SI.com:

• “Louisville entered the 2015 season with plenty of quarterbacks, but the Cardinals were struggling to find a punt returner. True freshman QB Lamar Jackson’s athleticism was so tantalizing, and the need for a dynamic returner so urgent, that someone on the coaching staff asked him to go field a punt and see what happens.

• “Seemingly minutes after practice had ended, members of the coaching staff got a call from Jackson’s mother, Felicia Jones. Head coach Bobby Petrino had lured Jackson to the Bluegrass State with the assurance that the freshman would be a quarterback and only a quarterback. Punt returner doesn’t look like quarterback, Jones said. She reminded them all of the promise Petrino had made to her and her son while sitting on a couch in their South Florida home. Jackson never went back for a punt return in practice again.”

• For those who haven’t been paying attention, Jackson refused to allow his speed to be tested by NFL scouts either at the NFL Combine or at Louisville’s Pro Day. That’s because he is intent on playing quarterback and only quarterback in the NFL, and he isn’t interested in showcasing anything that could lead scouts or teams in any other direction, even for just a short part of his professional career.

• Even though Jackson passed for 69 touchdowns in three seasons as Louisville’s starting quarterback, he also rushed for 50 touchdowns in three seasons as Louisville’s starting quarterback, and as tantalizing as that might be, he has no interest in following the path that Kordell Stewart did before becoming the Steelers’ full-time starting quarterback for the 1997 season.

• OK, so if not Lamar Jackson, then how about Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph for the Steelers at No. 28?

• Well, because Rudolph doesn’t play another position, and so you’d be cutting Dobbs after not seeing what he might become as an NFL quarterback, and if Roethlisberger decides to play for three more seasons – and if he plays those seasons at a level that’s comparable to how he’s been playing recently, he’s the starter. If he’s the starter for three more years, then the Steelers would have one season to figure out what they had in Rudolph before having to commit to him in a very big financial way, either with a contract extension or by exercising the fifth-year option on his rookie contract.

• Oh, and I have yet to have anyone explain to me how using a No. 1 pick on a quarterback in this draft gets this team closer to winning a Super Bowl.

• And this notion of getting a young quarterback into the mix “so Ben can show him the ropes,” so that “the young guy can learn from Ben” is drivel. There is a quarterbacks coach on Mike Tomlin’s staff for that. And one player trying to learn the most difficult position in professional sports from an older, established player at the same position, well, that doesn’t necessarily work, either.

• Mark Malone told the story of being in that very situation as a young quarterback with the Steelers when Terry Bradshaw was in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career.

• The way Malone told it, one day at training camp, for the quarterbacks the morning practice was spent teaching the concept of tandem coverage, which was cutting edge in the NFL at the time. Tandem coverage had the safeties lining up one in front of the other, as opposed to the more traditional way that had safeties lining up next to each other in the defensive backfield.

• Malone was having trouble with the intricacies in attacking this new coverage alignment, and so he said he walked to Bradshaw’s room after lunch with the idea of getting the veteran’s insight. Malone said Bradshaw was sitting on his bed, strumming a guitar when he walked into the dorm room, his playbook thrown into a corner and buried under a pile of laundry.

• After asking him about how to attack tandem coverage, Malone said Bradshaw told him something to the effect of: “I don’t know care where those safeties line up. I just throw it high and hard to Swann or Stallworth, and one of those guys will go up and get it for me.”

• Simple. Succinct. It was a method, an approach that worked every time for Terry Bradshaw. Not so much for anyone who wasn’t Terry Bradshaw.

• The NFL Draft begins three weeks from yesterday, and when it does the Steelers would be wise to heed Dan Rooney’s words as they navigate it.

• Because the idea is to win the Super Bowl.