By BOB LABRIOLA
Somewhere, Ben Roethlisberger had to be smiling.
In the NFL, teams always are on the lookout for franchise quarterbacks, and then those lucky enough to have one need to be smart enough to do what's necessary to keep him under contract while also surrounding him with players who can help him succeed.
The Steelers believed they picked their franchise quarterback in 2004, and when he became the youngest to win a Super Bowl the following season he earned himself the label. And within the past 60 days, the Steelers treated him as such.
First, they signed Roethlisberger to an eight-year contract worth a reported $102 million, and then on the first day of the 2008 NFL Draft they picked a couple of guys whose jobs will be to help him look good on Sundays.
After a season in which Roethlisberger was sacked 53 times, including the playoff loss to Jacksonville, the Steelers were expected to use this draft to add some players to prevent that from happening again. The assumption was that would be accomplished via the addition of at least one offensive lineman on the first day of the draft, but the Steelers approached the task from a different direction.
Two reasons why quarterbacks take too many hits are the lack of a potent running game and too much time spent holding onto the ball while waiting for receivers to come open.
Rashard Mendenhall should help the former, and Limas Sweed can help fix the latter.
As the first round of this draft unfolded, it became obvious fairly early that the Steelers, picking 23rd overall, wouldn't have much from which to choose when it came to the top offensive line prospects. Including Jake Long, who signed a contract with the Miami Dolphins days before the draft, seven offensive tackles were among the first 21 picks. When Carolina actually traded a No. 1 pick in 2009 to pick Pitt's Jeff Otah 19th overall, it emphasized the lengths teams were prepared to go to get an offensive tackle in this draft.
But one of the things the run on offensive tackles did was extend the availability of some of the top prospects at running back and wide receiver. Many services ranked Mendenhall as the second-best back in this draft, and the Steelers never hesitated when he was still there when they were on the clock.
"We were of the mind-set that we were thinking (about trading down), with only six picks … then we would entertain it for sure," said Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert. "We came up with a list of guys, and said, 'If these guys are there, we're not trading down because they're that good and we want them.'"
Mendenhall was one of those players, and Colbert said the Steelers already had turned their card in when the telecast of the draft was indicating they still had over seven of their allotted 10 minutes left.
"First and foremost, he's a quality human being," said Coach Mike Tomlin about Mendenhall. "We were thoroughly impressed with him while getting to know him through the interview process. A very humble, blue-collar worker. Those type of individuals don't have any problem fitting in. In terms of what he brings to the table – he's a complete back. He can run inside, he can run outside. He's a powerful runner. He's elusive, and of course he has the speed to go the distance. It shouldn't be too difficult finding ways that he can contribute to this football team."
The primary way Mendenhall will contribute is as a complement to starter Willie Parker. Mendenhall is a thickly-built, muscular 225-pound back, who is strong, can break tackles and can do the picking and sliding that's necessary at the NFL level. In the Rose Bowl against a USC defense that had three players picked in the first two rounds of this draft, Mendenhall carried 17 times for 155 yards and a touchdown, while also catching five passes for 59 more yards.
"In all honesty, when you look back on last year, once Willie was injured it was a difference, obviously," said Colbert. "Willie Parker's a Pro Bowl running back, and when you go from a Pro Bowl running back to anybody else there's going to be a drop-off unless you have another Pro Bowl running back. You want to try to add something to that backfield. Willie's still going to be a great running back, and we think Rashard will be a great running back as well. Most successful teams have two productive running backs. This one's a little bit bigger than Willie, so there may be some things that he can do to complement Willie, and that's only going to help us."
If Mendenhall surprised the Steelers by being on the board when they picked in the first round, they were equally shocked that Sweed was there when their turn came in the second. The Steelers didn't bring Mendenhall to town for a post-combine visit because they were sure he'd be picked before they had a shot at him, and Sweed was a guy they would've considered in the first round had circumstances been different.
And at a shade under 6-foot-5, Sweed also falls into the category of the tall receiver Roethlisberger requested.
"I love his range," said receivers coach Randy Fichtner. "The (wingspan) is extremely large. He's got the longer arms. When we were down there, his vertical jump was 36 or 37-inches. You couple that with the idea that he's almost 6-5, you're talking about a larger frame and target."
Sweed dropped into the second round because of a wrist injury that limited him to six games in 2007, but in 2006 he averaged 17.4 yards per catch and scored 12 touchdowns. When he was cleared medically by the Steelers, picking him was very easy, and like Mendenhall, there is the very real possibility he could have an impact as a rookie.
"Obviously there's a learning curve, but that hits everybody," said Fichtner. "I know that he's capable of learning. Having talked to their coaches extensively, having interviewed Limas, I don't think there's any reason he wouldn't be able to understand what he has to do."