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Labriola On

Labriola on Day 1 of the 2024 NFL Draft

A scouting staff can do the on-campus legwork and write the reports. Then comes the Combine. All that information sets the itinerary for the Pro Day circuit, where the up-close-and-personal is a little bit more. There are group readings of the reports, more discussion, medicals, and then comes the final grade, which determines the prospect's spot on the board. If you believe in your people, and diligence is practiced every step of the way, when it comes time to pick, it's a no-brainer.

Welcome to the Steelers, Troy Fautanu.

The 2024 NFL Draft was historic on a few levels, and while a couple of those benefitted the Steelers, the other one was history they made for themselves.

The NFL's inaugural draft came in 1936, and from then until Thursday, April 25 in Detroit, teams with the top three overall picks all had selected quarterbacks three different times: 1971 (Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, Dan Pastorini), 1999 (Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith), and 2021 (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance).

Now, it's four times after Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels, and Drake Maye went to Chicago, Washington, and New England, respectively.

For the first time in NFL history, a draft lasted 10 overall picks without a single one of them spent on a defensive player. In 1957, the Chicago Cardinals selected linebacker Jerry Tubbs with the 10th overall pick; on Thursday the Vikings traded up from No. 11 to No. 10 to pick quarterback J.J. McCarthy for a historic 5 quarterbacks in the first 10 picks of a draft. That there were 6 quarterbacks taken among the first 12 picks, and because General Manager Omar Khan definitively had ruled out a quarterback in the first round, the pool of prospects was being pushed down the board to them.

Khan was hired after Kevin Colbert retired after the 2022 NFL Draft, and he has made no secret of the desired direction. "We want to be a physical football team, and it's got to start up (front)."

With 6 quarterbacks and 4 other eligible-receiver types among the first 14 picks, and then when 4 of the next 5 picks were defensive players, the Steelers found themselves in a situation where they perceived the best value based on their current roster was going to come at offensive line. When edge Jared Verse was picked 19th overall by the Los Angeles Rams, and the Steelers went on the clock they didn't hesitate.

Khan has developed a reputation for being a GM who doesn't sit on his hands, but he also believes in never trading out of a spot when a good player is available. He didn't do it last year when there were offers to trade No. 32 overall because Joey Porter Jr. was available. And he didn't do it this time because Troy Fautanu was available, and he's a guy who checks a lot of their boxes.

Take a look at photos of Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick, OT Troy Fautanu

"Really excited about Troy, as Omar said," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "And the tape was just really, really impressive, not only in terms of his talents, but really I think his talents were really highlighted by the way Washington utilized his talents schematically. You saw everything you wanted to see. You saw him get out in space in the perimeter game … He was great in the run game. He was great as a drop-back pass protector. We had great visits with him through the process. We went to Tuscaloosa to handle some Alabama business, but we also had an opportunity to really talk to some people in Tuscaloosa who had some firsthand knowledge of his capabilities, the coaching staff, and he just checked every box."

Fautanu was a two-time first-team All-Pac 12 left tackle as voted by the conference's defensive linemen, and he earned that by being a physical and athletic offensive lineman who also has what the Steelers would consider a proper playing demeanor.

"His commitment to the game, his passion for the game really was very evident in communicating with him," said Tomlin. "That was relayed to us by those who had an opportunity to not only coach him, but we talked to a lot of guys who played with him. His passion is real. It is a calling card, coupled with his tremendous athletic talent."

One of the factors contributing to Fautanu being around when it came time for the Steelers to pick was his height, officially measured at 6-foot-3¾ at a position in a business where you usually don't get to ride the ride unless you're 6-4. But if you have a 317-pound man who is mobile, agile, and hostile, who is 23 years old and during his final two college seasons started all 28 games (27 at left tackle, 1 at left guard) for teams finishing a combined 25-3, does a quarter-inch actually matter? That's what Bill Nunn would say.

"I just think his relationship with the game is a pure one," said Tomlin. "He's a competitor. 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. I think his Dad is the original Steelers fan in their household. He's just a very impressive young man. Upside, young guy in the draft pool, a lot of talent, passion for the game. We're just really excited."

This is the thing about every NFL Draft: Even if you do all of the work diligently and apply your basic principles as part of the overall evaluation of an individual, and he ends up pretty high on your draft board, you still need some luck to be able to get the chance to pick him.

"As Coach mentioned, he was really high on our board, and we were just hoping he would still be there at No. 20," said Khan. "Yeah, can't say enough about how excited we are to have him. This guy loves football. I can't wait for you to get the opportunity to talk to him."

And in real time, the tension builds in 10-minute increments the closer he gets. What Khan found especially stressful was waiting out each of the five teams that were picking before the Steelers turned in theirs.

"Every one of those 10-minute periods were the longest 10 minutes of my life," said Khan. "I promise you that."

The look on his face made it easy to believe him.