Labriola On

Labriola on Day 1 of the NFL Draft

"It's not about Omar being new. We've done what we do in terms of our preparation."

-- Coach Mike Tomlin

The obvious storyline throughout this Steelers offseason typically came back to the impact of the franchise's change at general manager from Kevin Colbert to Omar Khan. Colbert, hired in 2000 to replace Tom Donahoe atop the Steelers player personnel department, had served in that role for 23 NFL Drafts, and those drafts had been used to construct rosters that played in three Super Bowls and added two Lombardi Trophies to the franchise's collection.

But Colbert retired after the 2022 NFL Draft, and Khan was hired to replace him, and along with that move came a restructuring of the personnel department. New people were brought in from other teams, responsibilities were shuffled and redistributed. What would it all mean, and how would it impact how the Steelers would go about their business of roster building?

While it appeared the Steelers were more active in free agency this time, what the team actually did was what it usually did, which was utilize that avenue to fortify various areas of their depth chart to set themselves up to be able to enter the three days of the NFL Draft without any urgency to pick a particular position to plug an obvious hole. They would be able to pick their board.

One of the things their draft board was telling them was that there were two distinct levels of prospects at the offensive tackle position, and so when one of the players they slotted in the upper echelon was still available as the picking approached the midway point of the first round, they were aggressive and made a trade to put themselves in position to get their man.

Their man turned out to be Georgia offensive tackle Broderick Jones, and the manner in which they got their man was to send their fourth-round pick (120th overall) to New England to move up from No. 17 in the first round to No. 14 in the first round to spend their first-round pick on an offensive tackle for the first time since 1996.

And the procedure they employed to arrive at Jones being worthy of the cost of an extra pick was doing "what we do in terms of our preparation."

As usual during the Tomlin era, the information-gathering process on a player often begins the year before he actually will come available in the draft.

"It was interesting, I was in Athens a year ago and took a group of his former teammates out 12 months ago," explained Tomlin, "and I said to them, 'Give me a name (of a guy) who we're going to be back for in 12 months.' And universally, Broderick's name was the name that we got 12 months ago. That was the first time I really heard his name. In investigating, I see why they held him in such high regard. He's a really good player right now, but the upside is tremendous. He's a Diaper Dandy. We're excited about getting him in the fold and teaching him and letting him sort himself out."

Jones is 6-foot-5, 310 pounds, and since he won't be 22 until May 16 and was a full-time starter in just one of his three seasons at Georgia, he is the personification of what Tomlin means with the "Diaper Dandy" label – a young, moldable player on the rise the Steelers can develop within their own program.

Technically a redshirt sophomore, Jones played in every game in 2021 and made four starts at left tackle for Georgia on the way to the Bulldogs' run to a national championship. Then in 2022, Jones started all 15 games at left tackle on the way to Georgia's successful defense of the previous season's national championship. The Steelers then interviewed Jones during the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, attended his Pro Day at Georgia, and then brought him to Pittsburgh and the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for a pre-draft visit/meet-and-greet.

"Man, I talked to everybody," said Jones about that visit. "I felt like I was at home. I'm not going to lie, I felt like I was at Georgia. I felt like the energy was there. At the end of the day, I was in love with the Pittsburgh Steelers when I left, and I became one. So, that's the end of that story."

Actually, that wasn't the end of the story but merely the impetus for how the plot built to a crescendo during the first round on Thursday night. The first nine picks included three quarterbacks, four defensive players, a running back, and just one offensive tackle – Ohio State's Paris Johnson Jr. – who went to the Arizona Cardinals. But when two more tackles (Tennessee's Darnell Wright and Northwestern's Peter Skoronski) were selected back-to-back with picks 10 and 11, the Steelers came to believe 17th overall wasn't going to be good enough to get them one of those upper echelon tackles.

"When we saw how the draft was going and (Jones) was still sitting there, we started making some phone calls to see if there was an opportunity to trade up and get him," said Khan, "and fortunately we were able to make that trade with New England. It's just part of the process. You just make phone calls, and you get a feel for what people are willing to do. Some clubs are a 'no'; other clubs are a 'maybe'. You just stay close to the phone and stay in contact with the clubs that might be interested. And it just so happened that with New England, it worked out."

The Steelers got a player who posted the fastest 40-time of any offensive lineman at the Combine, a guy whose competitive juices were cultivated every day, because the way Georgia Coach Kirby Smart runs his practices is to have the No. 1 offense go against the No. 1 defense on a regular basis. That meant Jones was pitted against the likes of Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter, and Nolan Smith day after day after day. And what emerged was an offensive tackle with experience on both ends of the line of scrimmage, a player with enough speed and agility to be effective on the move and in space, and once Jones matures a bit more physically his strength to manhandle opponents regularly will complete the package.

The top of the Steelers depth chart at offensive tackle includes returning starters Dan Moore Jr. and Chuks Okorafor, and now Jones joins them there to strengthen the unit considerably.

"In terms of the division of labor and who is going to do what," said Tomlin, "those things will be decided in the team developmental process. But make no mistake, we are excited about having a young man of his talent."

But there's more to Jones than talent, and there can be little doubt the "more to Jones than talent" aspect is what motivated the Steelers to get something done to enable them to add him to their program.

"He's got a competitor's mentality," said Tomlin. "He's wired right for this line of work. He's got a desire to be great. He's highly competitive. There's a reason why he put himself in that environment (at Georgia). He's been part of a winner. He understands that we are in the winning business. He values that. He has experienced that. Sometimes you can't really value that unless you've been a part of it."

With Jones playing an increasingly significant role from the start of the 2021 season through the end of the 2022 season, Georgia was 29-1 while winning back-to-back national championships, and all of it combined to make him the kind of prospect the Steelers believed was worth the cost of moving up from 17th to 14th.

"That means a lot to me," said Jones about the Steelers trading up for the right to pick him. "I just can't wait to get to Pittsburgh and start that journey, you know? It's a whole new journey. I can't wait to start the process over. I can't wait to keep growing and hit the peak of my growth because I'm not done yet. I'm not nearly close to being at the end goal, so I'm ready to get back to work and perfect my craft.

"They told me I'm a football player. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter where they stick me on the line. I'm going to give my best effort. My best shot. I'm going to fight to the end. Wherever they want to put me, they can use me wherever. I'm willing to work, continue to push, and just help this team wherever I can."

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