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5 for Friday: Patience pays off for Steelers

The first round of the 2024 NFL Draft couldn't have gone much better for the Steelers.

They were able to stick at the 20th pick, stay true to their board and get one of the highest-rated players they had in this draft in offensive tackle Troy Fautanu.

"He was a player we had rated really high up on the board," said Steelers general manager Omar Khan. "He was one of the guys we were hoping would be there and that we were targeting. When they were at (pick) 19, and waiting to see what the Rams picked, we just felt really good about it. He's the player we wanted."

Of course, all teams say that. But in that case, it was absolutely true.

The Steelers didn't hide their desire to add another young offensive tackle to their roster a year after acquiring Broderick Jones in the first round of the 2023 draft.

They met with nearly every offensive tackle who wound up being selected in the first round of Thursday night's draft.

Picking at 20, however, they didn't have any control over how those tackles came off the board ahead of them.

Perhaps there was one or even two others that they also liked. But they had eyes for Fautanu, just as he had eyes for them.

Fautanu, who is Polynesian, grew up a Steelers fan. He wore No. 43 in high school. He has the number tattooed on his forearm.

"Man, it really couldn't have gone any better," Fautanu said Thursday after the Steelers selected him in the first round, 21 years after they selected Polamalu in the first round. "I wore 43 pretty much my whole life until I switched to offensive line and couldn't wear it. I know a lot about the team and a lot about their history."

That being the case, he may or may not know the Steelers haven't selected offensive tackles in the first round of back-to-back drafts in their storied history.

"You know, I've always preached the importance of those big guys on the offensive line and on the defensive line," said Khan. "We have two first rounders, and with that comes expectations, and we expect those guys to be the cornerstone of that line for a long time. They're just two really good players. We're excited about Broderick, too. The arrow is pointed up for him, too. We just feel very fortunate to have those two guys on board."

It's worked out perfectly for the Steelers.

Picking where they typically are in the middle or end of first round – the Steelers haven't earned a top-10 pick in more than 20 years – they don't usually get an opportunity to select top offensive tackles. Those players typically go much higher than that.

But last year, they were able to move up slightly to acquire Jones with the 14th pick. This year, in a very deep offensive tackle draft, they were able to sit tight and get Fautanu at 20.

That doesn't mean, however, it wasn't dicey.

After New Orleans selected Taliese Fuaga of Oregon State with the 14th pick in this draft, four tackles had come off the board in the first half of the draft.

But there also had not been a defensive player selected to that point. Four of the next five players selected were defenders, with the only exception being the Cincinnati Bengals taking offensive tackle Amarius Mims of Georgia at 18.

With the Rams picking at 19, Khan was holding his breath.

"The phone was ringing to move up, to move back," Khan said of those final few picks before the Steelers selected. "It's just part of it. At the end of the day, we had an opportunity to move back if we wanted to, but when we were at 19 and waiting for the Rams to make their selection, we weren't going to …

Head coach Mike Tomlin finished Khan's sentence.

"We weren't moving off Troy, no," Tomlin said.

"Every one of those 10 minutes were the longest 10 minutes of my life," Khan said.

"He's not kidding you either," Tomlin added. "He wore me out."

This is a player the Steelers coveted.

How he fits in remains to be seen. He played left tackle at Washington, playing just two career snaps on the right side in 2022. Jones also has expressed an interest in moving back to the left side where he played in college after spending his rookie season at right tackle.

And the Steelers also still have Dan Moore, who has been their starter at left tackle the past three seasons.

But it's better to have three guys capable of playing on the left side, typically the more difficult side of the line to play in the NFL because the tight end doesn't align on that side for help as often, than it is to have three guys who are pure right tackles with little or no experience on the left side.

Fautanu is a special player, one of the top players available at any position in this draft.

In most drafts there are between 12 and 18 players who are considered first-round picks in any draft. Fautanu was one of those sure first-round players in this draft.

And the Steelers got him with the 20th selection.

"His relationship with the game is a pure one," said Tomlin. "He loves football. He loves the things that come with football. Based on talking to those around him, the preparation things, the training, practice, he's just a black-and-gold-type-of-guy."

• One of the reasons Fautanu fell to the Steelers was because a record six quarterbacks went in the first 12 picks of this draft, tying the record for most quarterbacks selected in the first round.

That matched the storied 1983 draft that included John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. The difference was that Marino, the last of the six quarterbacks selected in 1983, went with the 27th pick.

• As Khan said, the Steelers had opportunities to move down in the first round.

And had they done so, there were certainly other options for them to take, as center Graham Barton, wide receiver Brian Thomas Jr., and every cornerback was still available.

But, as Khan said earlier this week when discussing the draft, "We won't trade away from a good player."

In this case, trading away from Fautanu just didn't make sense.

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

"We actually had a lot more action than I expected," Khan said of a potential trade back. "When we were sitting there at (picks) 18, 19, teams were calling to move up to 20. We just weren't going to trade away from Troy.

• So, the Steelers didn't select a center, much to the chagrin of some fans.

But those fans should remember that while yes, Maurkice Pouncey was a first-round pick in 2010, Dermontti Dawson was a second-round pick in 1988. Mike Webster was a fifth-round selection in the storied 1974 draft.

Just one center, Barton, was selected in the first round of this draft, that coming at No. 26 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

There are still a number of centers who will be selected in this draft that will be starters. And there are still free agent options available at the position

• The first round of this draft was all about offense.

The previous record for offensive players selected to start a draft was seven. This draft opened with 14 consecutive offensive players selected. The record for offensive players selected in the first round was 19. There were 23 offensive players taken in the first round of this draft.

That means there were just nine defensive players taken in the first round.

With that being the case, expect Friday's second round to kick off with a heavy emphasis on defensive players, which could also work out well for the Steelers, who could be looking at wide receiver, center and cornerback in the second and third rounds.

"I'm excited about (Friday)," said Khan. "Right now, we're sitting there with a second and two thirds, and there are still a lot of good players. … I think we're in a good spot for (Friday)."