Labriola On

Labriola on Cam, irrelevant, Harrison

Ready or not, here it comes:

This happened back during this offseason's dark days, which for the Steelers typically fall shortly after the start of free agency each year. Leading up to this particular period in this particular year, the Steelers had lost Mike Hilton as an unrestricted free agent and had released Steven Nelson is a move that in truth was as much about quality of performance as it was about the salary cap.

Anyway, the Steelers were down a couple of starting cornerbacks and there didn't seem to be much chance to free up the kind of cap space that would be required to attract a familiar name. But there was still the bargain round of free agency on the horizon and the NFL Draft technically offered some promise, even though it seemed logical at the time that the Steelers would need at least a couple of their three premium picks for their soon-to-be-refurbished offensive line.

In a casual conversation with a member of the personnel department, the subject of the cornerback position was broached, as is, "What's going to happen at cornerback?" When it was, the immediate answer was something to the effect of, "We already signed the best unrestricted free agent cornerback available on the market this year."

Huh?

It took a minute to realize the reference was to Cam Sutton and to the two-year, $9 million contract he signed to stay with the Steelers just as free agency was set to commence. A third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Sutton always seemed to be one of those guys who was praised and valued for his versatility during the offseason, through training camp and the preseason, but once the games began to count in the standings, he was relegated to a reserve role.

Spot duty. Play some slot corner. Work in practice at safety. Play some outside corner. If somebody was injured, put Sutton there. He can handle it. In a twisted, backward kind of way, Sutton was too valuable to be a starter, because a starter can help his team at only the one position.

But there is more to Cam Sutton, because his development over time has made him more than the "jack of all trades, master of none" he might have seemed to be early in his NFL career. And he proved that to all who had yet to accept that reality inside Highmark Stadium on Sept. 12 during the Steelers' win over Buffalo in the regular season opener.

Sutton finished with five tackles, including two tackles for loss, and two passes defensed. And those turned out to be more than just numbers on the stats sheet. They were big plays.

After Isaiah McKenzie returned the opening kickoff 75 yards, the Bills had a second-and-3 at the Steelers 17-yard line. Josh Allen threw a quick pass to the sideline for Stephon Diggs, and Sutton came up and made the tackle for a 2-yard loss. On third down, Cam Heyward tipped Allen's pass incomplete, and the Bills settled for a field goal.

One of his passes defensed came on a fourth-and-8 from the Pittsburgh 45-yard line in the third quarter with the Bills holding a 10-3 lead. Allen tried to go deep to Gabriel Davis, but Sutton was there to break up the play.

His second tackle-for-loss came in the fourth quarter, on a fourth-and-1 from the Steelers 41-yard line with 13:46 remaining and the Bills holding a 10-3 lead. Allen tried to get the ball outside quickly to running back Matt Breida, but Allen was waiting for a play the Bills never had shown before and dumped Breida for a 7-yard loss. The Steelers responded with a drive for a touchdown that gave them the lead for good.

The Steelers had seen this potential in Sutton going all the way back to the evening before his Pro Day at the University of Tennessee before the 2017 NFL Draft.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had sat down with Sutton for one of those get-to-know-you conversations the Steelers brain trust always find so revealingly valuable in these situations. It just so happened that the chat took place in the Volunteers' football offices, and those offices had some Steelers game videos on hand, and it wasn't long after Tomlin learned about it that he and Sutton were watching video of the Steelers defense, and specifically when William Gay was on the field.

You see, back then Tomlin believed Sutton could be the successor as the smart, savvy, versatile defensive back that Gay was for the Steelers for 10 NFL seasons, just as Tomlin had seen Gay as a successor to the kind of player/contributor that Deshea Townsend had been for 12 seasons before him.

Now it's Cam Sutton, and it sure looks like he's just scratching the surface.

MEANINGLESS VS. IRRELEVANT
What's irrelevant is when there are reports during and/or after the NFL Scouting Combine that the Steelers – or some other NFL team – had a meeting with so-and-so in Indianapolis. As if a 15-minute meeting, one of about 40 or more an NFL team can conduct during the days at the Combine, is going to forecast serious interest in a player, or even more farfetched, that it would be an indication that the team is planning on spending a draft pick on the player.

Maybe it works out that way, but that is to predicting a team's draft what playing the lottery is to preparing for retirement.

That's irrelevant. What's meaningless is reporting that General Manager Kevin Colbert was at North Carolina watching a football practice in mid-September and drawing the conclusion from it that he was there to scout a specific player and then extrapolate that out to mean the Steelers "are interested in" said player or "have an eye on drafting" said player seven months from now.

Adding to the "drama" was the fact North Carolina Coach Mack Brown posted a photo of him and Colbert on his Twitter account with the words: "Great catching up with @steelers GM Kevin Colbert and all of the NFL scouts that came to practice today." Especially telling were Brown's words "and all of the NFL scouts who came to practice today," because that indicates it most likely was an occasion where the Tar Heels football program hosted a bunch of NFL personnel evaluators and invited them to watch practice, and that Colbert happened to be among those in attendance.

And for the record, the conclusion drawn by the "reports" was that Colbert was in Chapel Hill to see quarterback Sam Howell, which made it all so extra juicy in light of 2021 being rumored to be Ben Roethlisberger's final NFL season.

Have at it, internet "reporters." You, too, Steelers fans. Speculate away. Clog cyberspace and social media with this because the chances of it being correct are no better than paying for your retirement with a stint at the roulette wheel.

During the pre-draft process in 2007, the speculation was that the Steelers were hot on the trail of Auburn's Quentin Groves because the team had released veteran Joey Porter earlier and the depth chart at outside linebacker was particularly thin and unimpressive.

This also happened to be Mike Tomlin's first draft as the Steelers coach, and so when it came time for Auburn's Pro Day that spring, Tomlin attended, and he made sure he was seen there and photographed there. The "draft experts" bit like a hungry bass on a hook baited with a juicy nightcrawler, and from that day forward the mock drafts linked the Steelers and Groves in the first round.

Well, the Steelers were in fact in the market for linebackers in that draft, and Tomlin and Colbert would remake the team's unit at the position in the 2007 NFL Draft by picking linebackers on both the first and second rounds. On the first round, 15th overall, the Steelers picked Lawrence Timmons, and on the second round they picked LaMarr Woodley 46th overall. Groves went 52nd overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Have at it, with this Colbert visiting North Carolina "news item." Spin that roulette wheel. Good luck.

JAMES HARRISON'S FOOTBALL LIFE
NFL Network recently announced its plans for the players who will be the focus of this year's subjects for its always interesting series titled, "A Football Life." One of the subjects to be featured in 2021 is James Harrison. Normally a 60-minute show, "A Football Life" on Harrison could fill two hours, easy. And I would watch every minute.

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