The first round attracts the attention, the hype, the television ratings, the red carpet, the biggest crowds, and generates the excitement. It's the NFL Commissioner who announces all of the first-round picks and has a hug for any of them who want one. The picks in the first round are debated and analyzed and graded immediately, and they're remembered for decades, for better or worse, by fans and critics alike.
But the hardcores and the people whose paychecks and professional reputations are tied directly to a particular draft class understand that games are won or lost and jobs are kept or not by what happens on the second day of the draft. And the makeup of the rosters of the successful teams prove the point.
In the 2020 Conference Championship games, the rosters of the teams that advanced to the NFL's final four – Tampa Bay and Green Bay in the NFC, and Kansas City and Buffalo in the AFC – contained 26 players who were drafted in Rounds 2 and 3. In the NFL, first-round picks have the name recognition, but the picks in the later rounds are the ones that solidify the roster.
Looking back in Steelers history, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Dermontti Dawson, Carnell Lake, Chad Brown, and LaMarr Woodley were second-round picks; Mel Blount, Jon Kolb, Mike Merriweather, Joey Porter, Hines Ward, and Jason Gildon were third-round picks. And at the time they were drafted, not a famous name in the bunch.
In the 2021 NFL Draft, tight end Pat Freiermuth and center Kendrick Green were the Steelers' second-round and third-round picks, respectively, and when it comes time to judge this draft class and gauge its impact and its ability to right some of the wrongs with the current makeup of the roster, their contributions will carry significant weight in the final determination.
With their second and third picks in this draft, the Steelers stuck with what appeared to be the theme midway through this three-day lottery, which was to address needs while accomplishing that by adding players who brought a certain mind-set, a certain playing demeanor to their positions.
It was no secret when the draft began that the Steelers needed to add to the tight end and center positions, and the additions would have to do more than simply adding depth. Maybe the team didn't have to have guys to come in and be starter-capable as rookies, but whoever was selected wasn't going to have the luxury of a redshirt year either.
The situation at tight end was one where Eric Ebron was atop the depth chart, and he was there because of what he was capable of contributing to the passing game, or to put it another way he was atop the depth chart despite his shortcomings as a blocker.
Coach Mike Tomlin had said it again, as recently as Thursday night after the pick of running back Najee Harris, "You know, it's our intention to turn around the run game. Whether or not our work is complete as we sit here (after the first round) in that regard or not, whether it's the acquisition of players, the development of schematics, the finding of cohesion within our staff, all of that is irrelevant in terms of completeness (Thursday night). Our intentions are to improve our running game."
It was with those marching orders that the Steelers went back to work on Friday evening.
The charge of improving the running game with respect to the tight end position called for the addition of a player who was less of a liability as a blocker, but one who also wasn't such a plow-horse that his presence on the field would allow the opposing defense to ignore him completely as a receiver. The idea is to improve the running game to a degree where opponents must respect it or pay a price for not doing so. It's not about turning Ben Roethlisberger into a mailman.
"He will be kind of a throwback tight end because he can play the position and do some multiple things," said tight ends coach Alfredo Roberts about Freiermuth. "He can do some of the heavy lifting when we talk about getting in-line and doing some things. He can also work from the backfield because he can bend well and move well in space. We can flex him out if need be. In big packages, he can do a number of different things. I just like what he adds right now and what he is going to grow into in the future."
Toward the end of his career at Penn State, Freiermuth acquired the nickname, Baby Gronk, but early in his professional career that would seem to be more hype than reality. Freiermuth may be more physical and a more capable blocker than Ebron, but at least in 2021 he's not a guy the Steelers can put at the end of the line of scrimmage to handle defensive ends or edge players like Bud Dupree. In other words, he's no Mark Bruener. But he's no Jesse James, either.
"I think all guys, even the guys I've worked with in the league for a while, they still have some technique things they want to work on and work through," said Roberts about the blocking skills Freiermuth brings from Penn State. "As he grows, he will be more efficient. Some of the things we're going to ask him to do, we're going to work at. I think he has some natural knee bending, some pad level things that he does easily now. You just kind of situate those things that he does well, and the things that he needs to work on, we'll find a way to get those things better."
The pick in the third round, Kendrick Green, at first blush seems to have a little Kevin Dotson in him, and that's meant as a compliment. And some of the physical skills he has seem to be a nice fit for the style of offense first-year coordinator Matt Canada is going to implement, especially the predicted increase in zone-style running.
"I feel like I'm a really athletic offensive lineman," said Green, and he was just warming to the subject. "I feel like I'm the most athletic offensive lineman in this year's class. I play with a mean streak. I'm looking to play physical and finish guys. So I think that's something that will translate over well. But yes, at Illinois we did run a lot of zone."
Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm didn't disagree. "(Green) is a guy we had our eye on. We love the way he plays in terms of what we have been talking about and in terms of changing our demeanor. Just the type of attitude we want to carry onto the field, he embodies all of that. He has great leadership qualities. He was an alpha in that program and he is just a tremendous player. He can do it all. The pulls, physical in the run game, pass protect, all those different things. I'm just really ecstatic to coach him going forward."
The man Green will be tasked to replace, Maurkice Pouncey, was an alpha in high school for a program that won two state championships, then for a University of Florida program that won a National Championship, and finally in the NFL with the Steelers starting with his rookie training camp in 2010. Green may not be that, but he's no shrinking violet, either, and Klemm believes that kind of presence and demeanor aren't qualities that can be taught.
"I think people like to say they can teach it, but I think it's inherently in you," said Klemm. "Like some people just naturally have that. As a coach you can be demanding of it, but in critical moments of a game when man measures man, whoever you truly are is going to come out. If you have that dog in you, that wolf in you, you are going to continue to do that in critical moments of the game. I love it when I find a guy I don't have to bring that out of. (Kendrick) is just naturally like that, he carries himself that way, he plays with that nastiness at that position. This is just a guy who can do that. We have a number of guys in our group who can do that, and even if they can't do it, we're going to demand all they have and more, and try to get all that we can out of them. I'm really excited about it, and in terms of what we're talking about doing here he embodies all of that."