Labriola On

Labriola on Bush, Johnson, jersey numbers

Ready or not, here it comes:

• It was the single trait Bill Nunn valued most in wide receivers he was scouting: speed going into and coming out of the breaks. Beyond the actual catching-of-the-football aspect, that ability to make cuts at top speed, Nunn believed, was the most accurate predictor of a college receiver being able to make a successful transition to the NFL.

• Today, players with that skill are praised as good route-runners, or are said to possess good short-area quickness, and because the sport at the NFL level is played largely from sideline-to-sideline and in a 20-yard area beyond the line of scrimmage, those kinds of receivers are typically the best kinds of receivers.

• As Steelers wide receivers coach Darryl Drake pointed out, there are maybe only a few pure speed receivers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – he cited James Lofton and Randy Moss, plus there’s also Olympic gold medalist Bob Hayes – while most of the others with busts in Canton would be considered by scouts as “4.5 guys.” That list includes Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, Cris Carter, Fred Biletnikoff, Lance Alworth, Paul Warfield, and you get the idea.

• That’s why when Drake faced questions about Diontae Johnson, the Toledo receiver the Steelers selected with their first pick of the third round, he dismissed concerns about the 4.53 he posted in the 40-yard dash.

• “To me speed is overrated, and I’m going to say this because if you look at the greatest receivers who have played the game, those guys who are in the Hall of Fame … those guys are 4.5, 4.55 guys,” said Drake. “I had a guy in Arizona (Larry Fitzgerald) and he’s going to be a first ballot Hall of Famer, and he was not a 4.4 guy, but he’s a 4.4 player. Don’t get me wrong, you like to have that guy who can run really fast and run all of the routes and make all of the plays, but it’s very rare to have that. A guy who played here, the Steelers all-time leading receiver, what did he run? I’m talking about Hines Ward. He wasn’t really fast, but he had the native ability to learn how to get open. So to me, yes, speed is overrated, but we make such a big deal about it. We want that blazer but normally that package, with that dynamic speed, very seldom do you get the total package. Most of those guys who are 4.5 guys, they are total package guys. This guy has the ability to be a total package guy.”

• Drake believes Johnson can become a “total package guy,” because he already has some of the qualities the majority of college wide receivers have to learn/develop/perfect once they become NFL players and get exposed to the way the game is played at the professional level.

• “He’s really good vs. press (coverage), and as you know this is a press league,” said Drake. “These defensive backs walk up in your face and they try to fingerprint you, and he’s very elusive at the line of scrimmage. You need a guy who can get off bump. The thing that he does is get off bump, and he gets in and out of his breaks as well as anybody I’ve seen in a long time.”

• And there was one other quality Drake kept coming back to: “A tremendously gifted young man, and the most natural catcher I’ve seen in a while. He did have some concentration drops like they all do, but he’s very gifted at catching the football.”

• It’s probably stretching things a bit to claim the Steelers invented Ryan Shazier, or even invented the concept of seeing the merit of having the focal point of their defense being a fast, athletic inside linebacker, instead of the focal point being a fast, athletic player at a different position. But in 2014, the Steelers spent the 15th overall pick on Shazier and were roundly criticized for picking him instead of Alabama’s C.J. Mosley, who better fit the prototype of what an inside linebacker is supposed to look like.

• Five years after that draft, a fast, athletic inside linebacker who can make sideline-to-sideline plays vs. both the run and the pass is seen as a necessity, and so coveted are those players that the two best ones available in the most recent draft were snapped up in the top 10 of the first round.

• And just so we’re all on the same page when the topic is Shazier-like contributions, here are some numbers to illustrate the point: Shazier was injured in the first quarter of the 12th game of the 2017 regular season, and so the following numbers represent 11 games worth of on-field contributions in his final regular season: 89 tackles, including three for loss; three interceptions; 11 passes defensed; two forced fumbles; one fumble recovery; and seven hits on the quarterback.

• For me, Shazier always played best when the stakes were the highest, and here are his numbers in the playoffs: in five postseason starts, he had 38 tackles, including three for loss; two interceptions; four passes defensed; two forced fumbles; one fumble recovery; and two hits on the quarterback.

• Not that this means Devin Bush and Diontae Johnson are destined for the Hall of Fame, or even the starting lineup as rookies, but here was what Pro Football Focus thought about the Steelers’ first two picks in the draft:

• “The Steelers had to give up picks Nos. 20 and 52 in the 2019 NFL Draft and a third-rounder in the 2020 NFL Draft to get him, but former Michigan off-ball linebacker Devin Bush has a very good chance to be worth the extra draft capital if he can bring his play in Ann Arbor to Pittsburgh. He is a freakishly athletic linebacker with outstanding coverage and pass-rushing ability compared to his peers in this year’s class. He’s also a tone-setter on the defensive side of the ball who craves contact and knows how to lay the boom. He also earned 90.2 and 85.0 overall grades in 2017 and 2018, respectively. ‘I think Bush is perfect for what the Steelers want from the linebacker position,’ wrote Pro Football Focus draft analyst Mike Renner.

• “A favorite of practically everyone at the PFF offices, Toledo wide receiver Diontae Johnson is a superb route-runner who will be a nightmare for opposing defensive backs to match and mirror at the next level. Pro Football Focus draft analyst Mike Renner says it best in that ‘Johnson just moves differently.’ Production fell off a bit for Johnson when AAF superstar Logan Woodside left Toledo after the 2017 season, but Big Ben should help DJ return to form in Pittsburgh.”

• To those who like to keep track of such things: Of the Steelers’ 30-some pre-draft visitors, three of them became draft picks: WR Diontae Johnson, CB Justin Layne, and LB Ulysees Gilbert.

• One of the post-draft issues many fans find compelling is the issuing of jersey numbers to the new players – the rookies and big-name unrestricted free agent signings. In Pittsburgh, this is handled largely by the equipment staff, with the understanding that any and all decisions have to conform to NFL rules about jersey numbers with respect to the various positions. And there also is the veto power that once was wielded by Dan Rooney and now belongs to Art Rooney II.

• The history of the Steelers is that the franchise has retired just two jersey numbers – the No. 70 worn by Ernie Stautner and the No. 75 worn by Joe Greene. Fans may believe more jersey numbers should be retired, but the reality is that only two have been, and whether there will be more in the immediate future is something that hasn’t been shared with the general public.

• Anyway, there are a bunch of jersey numbers the Steelers just don’t issue anymore, and the numbers are the ones you would expect: No. 12, No. 32, No. 52, No. 58, and No. 59 from the 1970s, with No. 36, No. 43, and No. 86 from the more recent group of key players from Super Bowl teams. Both No. 82 and No. 88 have been in circulation rather regularly since John Stallworth and Lynn Swann wore those jerseys, but that can be blamed on the NFL’s rule regarding players at certain positions having to wear certain numbers, and No. 86 could be a victim of that rule as well here sometime soon.

• One example of the veto being exercised came in 1994 when the Steelers signed fullback John L. Williams as an unrestricted free agent. Williams had worn No. 32 during his years with the Seahawks, and so he wanted to continue with the same jersey number in Pittsburgh. When he was turned down in the equipment room, Bill Cowher figured he would intervene on the player’s behalf. Dan Rooney stepped in, and Williams wore No. 22 during his two seasons in Pittsburgh.

• The way things are here, those jerseys belong to the team, and those jersey numbers are part of the franchise’s history. The numbers don’t belong to the players who once wore them, and they have no say in whether or not those jersey numbers are returned to circulation. As it should be. But as it’s not in Washington, apparently.

• The Redskins’ picked Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins on the first round of the 2019 draft, and Haskins wore No. 7 for the Buckeyes. The Redskins hadn’t issued No. 7 since Joe Theismann’s career ended after the 1985 season, but shortly after being selected Haskins made some reference to asking “Mr. Theismann” if he could be the first player in 34 years to wear No. 7.

• In typical Theismann fashion, he said, “I’m anxious to sit down and talk to Dwayne about that. I’m not opposed to it. I’m not saying yes yet, but I really want to sit down and talk to the young man and get a chance to meet him. I know he’s reached out and said he wants to ask me, so as early as I can get back into town and be able to set up an opportunity when he gets into town to be able to sit down and talk to him about it.”

• Theismann went on to add, “It’s what’s inside the jersey that makes a big difference. I’ve been very honored to have the Washington Redskins not have it issued to anyone over 30-plus years, and this is the first No. 7 that we’ve had come along, I think. So I really want to sit down and have a visit with him and talk to him about it, and then we’ll sort of decide going forward.”

• We? Theismann actually believes there should be a “we” involved in this and that he’s such an important part of the “we” that he should be the final word on if and to whom the Redskins issue No. 7. Wow. It’s probably a good thing that Haskins isn’t interested in Theismann’s helmet, because it undoubtedly would be too big for him.

• By the way, Devin Bush will wear No. 55. Arthur Moats (2014-17), Stevenson Sylvester (2010-13), Patrick Bailey (2008-09), Joey Porter (1999-2006), Jerry Olsavsky (1990-97), and Jon Kolb (1969-81) didn’t get a vote on that.

Advertising