Labriola On

Labriola on Day 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft

Depending upon your age on March 14, 1967, maybe you spent the day in your house, the one you bought for $14,250, and sat in front of your black-and-white television and watched the newest episodes of "The Beverly Hillbillies," and "Hogan's Heroes." Or maybe you decided to go for a drive in your car, not too far though, because after all gas was up to 33 cents a gallon. But if watching some TV or going for a drive didn't interest you, maybe you turned on the radio to listen to songs from that latest album from the Beatles, the one they titled "Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band."

What you didn't do, and what you wouldn't have done all day that day was pay any attention to the NFL Draft. Even if you cared, how could you? It wasn't on television. It wasn't broadcast on the radio. Besides, your Steelers didn't have a first-round pick anyway, as usual. Traded it away for a couple of old guys you never heard of, as usual.

That was an era when the initials S-O-S came to stand for "same old Steelers," and that derogatory acronym was all-encompassing. It could have referred to the team managing only five winning seasons in its previous 20, or maybe it was seen as being reflective of a draft "strategy" that had the team make only five first-round picks in the previous 10, and the only one of those who was any good was a future Hall of Fame quarterback named Len Dawson they never played and then traded away after three seasons. Probably for another guy you never heard of.

The only good thing about 1967 for the Steelers and their fans was that it was very close to the end of the Dark Ages, a period in franchise history when the team won rarely and won nothing of significance, when coaches were hired because of who they knew instead of what they knew, when their season ended religiously on the same date as their regular season finale.

These Steelers are dramatically different than those Steelers, and the most significant factor in their metamorphosis arguably is the change in the way they came to view the NFL Draft. And the change in the way they came to view the draft was the fertilizer that transformed the franchise from a patsy into one that is equal parts respected, feared, and hated for its run of consistent success over the past 50 years.

BACK TO THE PRESENT
Thursday night marked the start of the 2020 NFL Draft, and for the first time since 1967 the Steelers were spectators during the first round. They might not have had a pick, but they used that first-round pick as well as any team participating last night, because while 32 selections were made with the hope that the return would be a difference-making player who would grow to become a first-team All-Pro, the Steelers already know the player they got with their No. 1 pick is a difference-making player who has grown into a first-team All-Pro because he was both of those things last season.

The Steelers got that first-team All-Pro-in-waiting on Sept. 16, 2019 when they made a trade with Miami that sent their first-round pick in this draft to the Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick. There were a couple of other components to the trade, some swapping of other picks, but the headline was that the Steelers traded a future first-round pick for a current NFL player. And regardless of how smart the move looks today, the decision to go back down a path that had been so disastrous for them for more than a decade of their history was not made frivolously.

"It was a tough one, a tough decision, no question about it," said Steelers President Art Rooney II, who could've vetoed the move simply by saying, no. "Spent a lot of time pacing the floor on that one, but again, it was unusual really to have a chance to bring somebody in like Minkah who, No. 1 played a position of need, and really was somebody who came in and solidified the back end of the defense in a way we needed to have happen. It was a tough decision, but glad we made it."

In 14 games with the Steelers, Fitzpatrick had five interceptions, a hand in eight of the Steelers' NFL-leading total of takeaways, and scored two defensive touchdowns. And beyond the numbers, he was the final piece in transforming the Steelers' defense from a unit that regularly wasn't good enough in 2018 into a unit that now looks to be good enough to propel the team to championship contention.

"It's a big deal that we got Minkah," said Rooney a couple of days ago. "I think when our (first-round) pick comes up, I'm going to tune into Minkah Fitzpatrick highlights and remind myself we already got our first-round pick this year."

When the Dolphins made the trade, they did it knowing that Ben Roethlisberger was going to be out for the rest of the season because he needed surgery on his right elbow. They were hoping that situation was going to cause the Steelers to implode and that their reward was going to be a top 10 pick in 2020. But what the Dolphins actually did was provide the Steelers with a piece that completed their defense and went a long way toward preventing an implosion. Minkah Fitzpatrick for a No. 1 pick was a bargain. Minkah Fitzpatrick for a No. 1 pick that turned out to be the 18th overall of the round was criminal.

Not having a pick in the first round of a draft while watching it unfold in front of your eyes can feel like sitting in a gourmet restaurant and being forced to watch everyone else sample the various delicacies. But when the clock struck midnight and the first day of this draft became history following Kansas City exercising the 32nd pick of the first round, the Steelers could look around and see that the menu had not been completely picked over.

It's assumed the Steelers are in the market for offensive playmakers and plan to use this draft to rectify that situation, and when things resume at 7 p.m. today they still should be able to find some high-quality prospects who meet the criteria.

That's because the first 32 picks included four quarterbacks, seven offensive linemen (six tackles and one center), and 14 defensive players. The other seven were six wide receivers from what consistently has been described as the best and deepest group in this draft, and one running back. With the 49th overall selection, the Steelers still will have to sweat through 15 picks today before it's their turn, but they should have gone to sleep last night feeling pretty good about their chances at a player who should have a chance to make a positive impact immediately.

Like Minkah Fitzpatrick did.

"You know, it's going to be a spectator's view," said Coach Mike Tomlin when he was asked about not having a first-round pick in this draft, "but you know, it's really a good opportunity for us to get comfortable with the organization of all of this in terms of how the draft is unfolding and how the communication happens and trades and things of that nature … to be honest with you, I'm not fretting at all about not having a first pick. That first pick is Minkah Fitzpatrick, and we have already benefitted from his presence and looking forward to continuing to do so."

The Steelers nailed their first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Now they have to follow that up today and Saturday.

Advertising