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Labriola on Day 2 of the 2024 NFL Draft

As Dan Rooney always said about this particular time of the year, "The idea is not to try to win the draft. The idea is to try to win the Super Bowl."

The Steelers entered this 2024 NFL Draft with some rather defined needs/wants, and being that it has been an offseason of some urgency there could have been a danger that they might "try to win the draft" in an effort to check off some of the things on their wish list. Instead, they navigated the process of Day 2 by adding the center they needed after moving on from 2-year starter Mason Cole, a wide receiver they wanted after trading Diontae Johnson and cutting Allen Robinson, and a fast, athletic inside linebacker they couldn't ignore after season-ending injuries to Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander taught them the hard way that you never have enough of those.

And they accomplished all of it by sticking to their principles, adhering to their process, and not spending their draft capital like drunken sailors on leave.

When the day's pickings began with the second round, the Steelers had the 19th selection in that round, the 51st overall, and their chances to come out of the weekend with a candidate capable of stepping into the starting lineup as a rookie were evaporating. When they made Troy Fautanu their first-round pick, their three best options at center had yet to be picked. But before that round ended, Graham Barton was off the board to Tampa Bay. Then on Friday, when the Raiders plucked Jackson Powers-Johnson from the pile, there was one left, and the Steelers' second-round pick was still 7 slots away. And even if there was some confidence in knowing whether the teams owning those picks were in the market for a top-of-the-depth-chart center, there was a very real possibility that another center-needy team might trade into one of those spots and spoil everything.

Instead of panicking and overpaying to move up themselves, the Steelers hung tough and were rewarded with the opportunity to select West Virginia center Zach Frazier, which they did quickly and happily.

"We're extremely excited to bring Zach into the program," said offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. "It's rare you find a guy with that kind of pedigree and resume and the number of snaps he has in college. Certainly, there's his background in wrestling. He's been a high achiever his whole life, and we couldn't be more fired up to get Zach in the building."

Specifically, Frazier was a key part of his high school team that went 38-3 and won a state championship in football; he personally posted a 159-2 record as a heavyweight wrestler and won that state championship 4 times. Once he got to Morgantown, Frazier started 37 consecutive games at center over his final three seasons and was a three-time captain. He's physical, tough, good in space, and excels at hand-to-hand combat while playing with the leverage and balance that's a necessity to be a champion wrestler. Oh, and he graduated with a 4.0 in sports management.

"He's got a lot of experience with pulling and making calls," said Smith. "There's obviously going to be an adjustment to the National Football League, but that experience really helps. When he was in here (for his pre-draft visit), he was telling me he does a lot of woodworking. He builds things. Just that whole resume is impressive. He's a very, very mature person for that age coming in here, and that helps. That's why we want him to play center."

As for the wide receiver they wanted, 7 had been picked in the first round, 4 more went in the second round, and when the first pick of the third round was a wide receiver, 12 had been subtracted from the overall pool. Again though, the Steelers bowed their back and stuck to their process. They didn't blink and throw draft capital at the situation. They waited it out and were able to select Michigan's Roman Wilson with their first of two third-round picks, 84th overall.

Wilson is fast – he ran a 4.39 at the Combine – and in his final two college seasons he averaged 16.0 yards on 73 catches and had 16 receiving touchdowns for a team that went 28-1 and won a National Championship. And in order to be on the field long enough to post such statistics, Wilson had to be a willing and competent blocker in the running game.

When Smith was asked what qualities he saw in Wilson that impressed him, he said, "Competitiveness. I think you can see his instincts on tape. I thought he stepped up in the big moments. And he had a great energy about him, too, when I met him in person."

During Senior Bowl practices, Coach Mike Tomlin encouraged Wilson and cornerback Quinyon Mitchell to face-off against each other when doing drills, as part of his whole "iron sharpens iron" approach.

"The one thing that really stood out was him telling me to go find Quinyon Mitchell, get reps against him, just go to work on him," said Wilson. "That was one of the big things for me at the Senior Bowl. Just having a guy like Mike Tomlin, I know that he's watching me, and he wants me to go against the best and ball out. That's exactly what I went out there and did."

Wilson's willingness to embrace the challenge of going against the best during Senior Bowl Week and then winning his share of the matchups cast him as more than a guy whose stats were padded by being on an elite team, and it cemented his status as a worthy Day 2 pick.

One calendar year ago, the Steelers had used unrestricted free agency to remake their depth chart at inside linebacker by adding Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, and Alexander. But a significant knee injury to Holcomb and an Achilles injury to Alexander had the Steelers scrambling there over the last month-plus of the regular season. In the initial wave of this free agency period they added Patrick Queen to the defense to pair with Roberts in the starting lineup, and with their second third-round pick (98th overall) they added North Carolina State's Payton Wilson to the mix.

In 2023, Wilson won the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker, and the Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player, and was voted the 2023 ACC Defensive Player of the Year. In his final two college seasons he had 30 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, 4 interceptions, 9 passes defensed, and 2 fumble recoveries in 23 games. But Payton Wilson was a Day 2 draft pick because he isn't a dynamic pass rusher, and he has an injury history.

Wilson tore an ACL as a senior in high school, and as a college freshman he sustained another knee injury during training camp and redshirted that season. Then in 2021, Wilson sustained a shoulder injury in the second game that caused him to miss the rest of the season. But Wilson has had no knee issues since his freshman year at N.C. State, and both Hines Ward and Greg Lloyd had long, productive careers with the Steelers without intact ACLs. As for the shoulder injury, football is a rough sport and sometimes things can happen. But that doesn't make the player injury-prone.

"I evaluate the tape that I watch, and I let the doctors handle all the medical stuff," said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. "My job is to grade his tape as a football player, and how he helps our defense. He brings some speed to our defense, he brings some physicality to our defense, and an ability to cover guys. That's what I look at. He can really (run). He's a quick-trigger guy, which you like in a linebacker. He sees and diagnoses things fairly quickly, and that allows his speed to really show up in games."

So it was that on Day 2 of this draft, the Steelers built on the addition of Fautanu by committing just three picks to filling the hole in the center of their offensive line, to adding a fast, competitive, and tough player to a wide receiver depth chart that's in flux, and to reinforce a position gutted by injuries down the stretch of the 2023 regular season.

And they did it without being tempted to try to win the draft.