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Labriola on Day 2 of the NFL Draft

The first-round picks get the bulk of the attention, they are the most heavily scrutinized, and they come to identify the entire draft class. If the No. 1 pick becomes an All-Pro player, history comes to judge the draft class as a success. Conversely, if the No. 1 pick is a bust, the entire class is tainted.

But the professionals who make their living in the evaluation/picking of college prospects will tell you it’s the second day of the draft that actually is the meat and potatoes of this annual exercise. The second day of an NFL Draft contains the second and third rounds, and those players come into the league on four-year contracts that are extremely salary cap friendly, and they often are separated from their first round brethren by tenths of a second in the 40-yard dash, or an inch or two in height, or maybe even by an ill-timed sprained ankle.

The Steelers followed up their first round selection of safety Terrell Edmunds with three picks in Rounds 2-3, and a team that began this weekend with perceived needs on defense went wide receiver, quarterback, offensive tackle. And they were tickled  to have the opportunity.

Because Oakland made the Steelers an offer they couldn’t refuse for Martavis Bryant, the team had an extra third-round pick and also a need at wide receiver. And because D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley were the only players at that position picked in the first round, there was still a nice complement available from which the Steelers could choose, and they wasted no time taking care of this particular hole on the depth chart.

Four more receivers were picked in the second round before the Steelers had a chance to spend their 60th overall selection, which was the 28th of the round, and that meant there still was a lot of value among the wide receiver prospects still available. Their choice was James Washington, a 5-11, 213-pound receiver from Oklahoma State who may not have been the first receiver picked but his resume makes the case he was the best of those eligible in this draft.

MORE THAN A ONE-TRICK PONY
The 2017 Biletnikoff Award winner in 2017 as the nation’s top college receiver, Washington finished his career at Oklahoma State with 4,472 receiving yards, which is No. 2 in Big 12 Conference history. And his career totals of 4,472 receiving yards and 39 touchdowns both led all FBS players in 2017. Voted a team captain in 2017, Washington posted nine 100-yard receiving games and three multi-touchdown games.

“We got a chance to get to know this young man. We took him out to dinner when we were at his Pro Day,” said offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. “We also got to meet with him at the Combine, and he’s a very interesting young man. He has his degree in what I believe is agriculture. He’s a farmer. A tough guy, runs fast, scores touchdowns. I believe he started 43 games and scored 39 touchdowns.”

When they went shopping for a wide receiver in the second round, the Steelers were looking for a specific characteristic in the player, and that characteristic was the combination of skills that would make him a deep threat. Even though Washington wasn’t the fastest guy in terms of stopwatch speed during testing, his game production proved he is a legitimate deep threat. During his three seasons as a starter, Washington had games in which his average-per-catch was 33.0, 29.0, 50.0, 36.8, 32.9, 30.3, 26.3, 49.0, and 39.2.

“If you look, you see a lot of long catches,” said Fichtner. “We’ve had fast guys in the past and could count how many times they’ve gotten open deep (on one hand). There’s a lot of ways to (get open deep): by strength, by technique, and by willingness and conditioning.

“We’ve, in the past and over the years here, we’ve had guys from Mike Wallace to Nate Washington, fast guys who play one spot and they can do one thing,” added Fichtner, “and hopefully in their time and their growth, might be able to do more than one thing and be more than potentially a one-trick pony. (James Washington) comes in with several tricks.”

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A BARGAIN TOO GOOD TO IGNORE**
The Steelers didn’t come into this draft with designs on picking a quarterback, even though General Manager Kevin Colbert said on the Monday before it began that the team’s philosophy was to compete for a championship today while also keeping an eye trained on the future. During their evaluations for this group of prospects, they found they liked a lot of things about Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph, the guy who helped make James Washington a second-round pick.

They found they liked Rudolph so much that they placed a first-round grade on him, but when it came time to make their No. 1 pick they went with another guy with a first-round grade who filled a more pressing need: safety Terrell Edmunds. Rudolph wasn’t picked in the first round, and the Steelers believed it was prudent to fill their hole at wide receiver when their turn came around in the second round. When Rudolph wasn’t picked in the second round, either, and things moved into Round 3, the Steelers started to believe they had to find a way to capitalize on this unexpected opportunity.

The Steelers had the 15th pick of the third round, the 79th overall selection of the draft, and when the picking got to the low 70s and Rudolph was still waiting by the phone, they decided to act. The Seattle Seahawks owned the 76th overall pick following an earlier trade with Green Bay, and the Steelers found themselves a trading partner. For the cost of a seventh-round pick, the 220th overall, the Steelers swapped third-round picks with the Seahawks and grabbed Rudolph.

“A pretty accomplished player, at his school I want to say he was 32-9 as a starter,” said Fichtner. “Obviously, there’s a lot of value in wins and he’s a winner. He’s very talented. Obviously, he throws the deep ball extremely well. It’s valued here. It’s something that we like to do, and it’s something we’ve done very effectively.”

Rudolph (6-5, 235) was the winningest quarterback in Oklahoma State history, with 10 of his 32 career wins coming in games where the Cowboys trailed during the second half. He finished his career holding 54 school records, including single-season and career marks for passing yards, passing touchdowns, and pass efficiency. Rudolph ended up ranked fourth in Big 12 history with 13,618 career passing yards and third with an average of  324.2 passing yards per game.

The issue here obviously is how the selection of Rudolph impacts the Steelers depth chart at this position. There are three absolutes – Ben Roethlisberger sits atop the depth chart as the starter, Rudolph will be on the 53-man roster in 2018 because quarterbacks who are third-round picks don’t get cut in their first training camp, and there won’t be four quarterbacks on the regular season roster. That means Landry Jones and Joshua Dobbs will spend the next several months fighting for a roster spot.

One of the knocks on Big 12 quarterbacks is that they’re products of the system, that they lack many of the basics required of NFL quarterbacks, such as calling plays in a huddle and taking snaps under center. While Fichtner has no delusions that Rudolph is coming to the team as completely NFL-ready, he also said the Steelers’ evaluation indicated Rudolph comes with a lot of what the pros look for in quarterbacks.

“I think he shows anticipation (in making his throws),” said Fichtner. “Obviously there’s the well-documented ability to throw the deep ball, the ability to push the ball down the field, and Oklahoma State’s offensive system isn’t necessarily what you might consider a short system of a lot of quick, small, short throws and catch-and-run type situations. He actually had to sit in the pocket. They asked him to sit in the pocket and throw seven-step-drop passes and attack intermediate zones and make plays off shotgun-play-action.”

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SOME CLAY FOR MUNCHAK TO MOLD**
Another goal the Steelers had for the second day of this draft was to add a developmental prospect at tackle to create competition to fill the void created by Chris Hubbard leaving as an unrestricted free agent. They took care of that when they added Chukes Okorafor with their second pick of the third round, the 92nd overall selection of this draft.

Okorafor, 6-6, 320, was born in Nigeria and wasn’t exposed to football until his sophomore year in high school in Southfield, Michigan. A couple of years later, he was ranked the No. 11 high school recruit in the state, and he ended up with a scholarship to Western Michigan, where he started 39 games. Now, Okorafor gets a chance to learn from one of the all-time greats, a Hall of Fame player and a renowned position coach.

“He’s had, I guess three or four years of playing offensive line,” said offensive line coach Mike Munchak, “so they’ve done a nice job with him and he’s developed nicely. And you see him get better each year, each time out there playing, because it is new to him and that’s kind of exciting for me because you get a guy who doesn’t have a whole lot of bad habits. Chukes got away with things because of his size, his arms, his strength, those type of things which lets you know he’s not even close to being developed the way he can be. So, I’m just real excited about all the upside he has and looking forward to working with him and teaching him our technique, teaching him how we do things. And the group we have in that room will be great for him. They will teach him the game in a lot of ways, how to prepare, how to work, the work ethic. We have great leaders in our room with [Maurkice] Pouncey and those guys, David [DeCastro], Ramon [Foster], who will be great for a young guy like this. I think they are going to really like him, and I think he will just add another element to our room with competition.”

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