It was all about Friday. All along, they knew Friday was going to be the key day, the day that would stamp what they did over the 72 hours of their 2019 NFL Draft as a success, or as a missed opportunity.
All of the fans’ attention was focused on Thursday night, because that was when the first round was conducted, when the names coming off the board were ones even the most casual of college football fans could recognize. That was when 11.4 million people eschewed one of the final new episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” to tune into one of the three networks televising the proceedings in Nashville that reportedly were attended by over 200,000 partying NFL fans.
But for the people in the football business it was always going to be about Friday. Friday was when Rounds 2-3 would be conducted and where some of the best values in this draft could be had.
“I think this is one of those drafts where you can feel really good about the players you’re getting in Rounds 2-3,” said General Manager Kevin Colbert a few days before it began.
And then after pulling off the trade that moved the Steelers up 10 spots in the first round, from No. 20 overall to No. 10 overall, Colbert assured the media the deal to net linebacker Devin Bush never would’ve happened if it required the Steelers to give up more than one of their three Friday picks.
There were a lot of theories about what the Steelers needed to get from their two Friday picks, both of which were in the third round – the 66th and 83rd overall in this draft. But it also seemed that a couple of the obvious areas the team needed to address were wide receiver and defensive back.
At wide receiver, the hole in the depth chart was a result of Antonio Brown being traded to Oakland. At defensive back, there might not be an obvious hole in the depth chart, but there also is a universal understanding that something has to be done about 2018’s total of eight interceptions.
And so with that, the Steelers went to work.
During many of the overviews of the pool of talent available in this draft, it was predicted that the place to get good value at defensive back was late in the first round and into the second round. And there was a similar feeling about the pool of talent at wide receiver.
Those turned out to be accurate assessments, because even though there were 18 defensive players picked among the 32 first-round selections, only three of those were defensive backs. And of the non-defensive players picked in the first round, only three were wide receivers.
But once the second round began at 7 p.m. on Friday, the defensive backs started flying off the board, and by the time the Kansas City Chiefs made the penultimate pick of the second round, the 63rd overall, on Virginia safety Juan Thornhill, there had been 11 defensive backs picked in the second round. Also in the second round, seven wide receivers came off the board, and because the Steelers had sent their No. 2 pick to Denver in the trade that brought Devin Bush to Pittsburgh, all they could do was sit and watch.
The Steelers held the second pick of the third round as part of the Antonio Brown trade, and it’s possible they viewed the remaining wide receivers as a better value than defensive backs since there had been fewer of them picked to that point in the draft. But if not, there also was a symmetry about using a pick obtained in trading Brown to add a player they hope can help make up for his absence.
Diontae Johnson is eerily similar to Antonio Brown in many ways, but different from him in many others. Both played at Mid-American Conference schools – Johnson at Toledo and Brown at Central Michigan. They are the same height, have similar builds at the start of their NFL careers. Both of them posted similar numbers when it comes to timed speed. Both bring added value for an ability to contribute on special teams.
“I went to Toledo and spent some time there with him. I also attended his Pro Day and I met him at the Combine,” said wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. “I had time to really be around him because it was important to me what kind of character he had. That’s extremely important, and he checked all of the boxes as far as that’s concerned. He had a really good Combine and had an outstanding workout at his Pro Day. When you watch the tape, you see how dynamic he is with the ball in his hands and the change of direction and those other things that he has. He is an exciting football player, and he can stop and start and he can make people miss in open space. That was really one of the most intriguing things about him. I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and he was one of the best interviews and guys I’ve been around in a long time.”
Johnson will get an opportunity to be as versatile as he can based on how quickly he picks up the offensive system. Drake said there is no specific plan to start him as an outside receiver or to limit him to the slot.
“He can function outside and inside. He did both at Toledo,” said Drake. “We’re going to put him in the best spot for us and the best spot to give him the opportunity to do the things that he can do. He can work off the nickel, he can work off linebackers, but he can also line up on the single receiver side and beat man-on-man coverage. That was the most intriguing thing about him. For any young guy coming in, the faster they can learn, the faster they can pick things up, then the more opportunities you have to move him around. For each young man there’s always going to be somewhat of a growth process, but I think he’s the kind of young man who will grow fast.”
With their second pick in the third round, which was their final opportunity to do their Friday shopping, the Steelers settled on Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne, who’s 6-foot-2 and is seen as an ascending talent at the position. The reports on Layne highlight the manner in which he already has learned to use his height and long arms to make him a competitive man-to-man cover corner despite not having difference-making speed.
He had a few interceptions during his college career, but the Steelers believe he has good enough ball skills that when combined with an understanding of NFL offenses can turn him into a player who could positively impact the team’s takeaway total.
All of that sounds good today, because in every NFL city teams are generally thrilled with the players they’ve added to this point in this draft. But draft classes cannot be evaluated accurately until a few years have passed, and when that happens how the Steelers did on Friday will go a long way toward determining how history will come to view their 2019 draft class.