Labriola On

Labriola on Day 2 of the NFL Draft

In the NFL, you don't win a game in the first quarter. And so it also can be said about the NFL Draft, because if the idea is to build a roster capable of winning enough games to get into the playoffs and then compete for a championship, the work needs to continue beyond the first day. Winning one game in a row doesn't get the job done, and neither is a team built with one good draft pick over a seven-round exercise.

The Steelers got off to a good start in this 2023 NFL Draft by aggressively going after a targeted player and ultimately landing him by trading up in the first round for the reasonable price of a fourth-round pick. But they followed that with a Day 2 haul that allowed them to address areas of need with three more individuals who love football and play the sport with a nasty, physical edge. Their names are Joey Porter Jr., Keeanu Benton, and Darnell Washington, their occupations are outside cornerback, interior defensive lineman, and in-line blocking tight end, as the Steelers continued to create the competitive environment that serves as the rising tide lifting all the other boats.

The Steelers arrived for Day 2 with three picks over the second and third rounds:

• the 32nd pick, the first of the day, and forever to be known as the compensation they received for the trade of Chase Claypool;
• their original second-round pick, which was the 49th overall;
• and their original third-round pick, which was the 80th overall.

It was widely assumed the Steelers would throw open the bidding for the 32nd pick and decide from among the various packages which one would provide them the best assortment of later picks to set themselves up for success through quantity. But maybe because the Steelers were asking for too much, or because the bidders didn't view No. 32 as a must-have, or maybe some combination that ended up convincing the Steelers to go with the "bird in the hand."

Make no mistake, Joey Porter Jr. is nobody's consolation prize, because he navigated his college career and then the pre-draft job interview process to secure a spot among the elite cornerback prospects in his draft class. His size, length, quickness, competitiveness, toughness are the raw materials complemented by an approach to business and an on-field demeanor that belie his youth and inexperience.

"I think the big thing with him was it was always that he knew what he had to do," said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. "People were coming in to see him because he was a good player, not because of who his dad was. I think he understood that right from the beginning and he handled it like a true professional, like what you want to see these guys do when they go through this process. And that's part of the process, seeing how the guys handle things. How do they react when the coaches are in? One of the things we do when we go in the buildings (during college visits) and go to workouts, we always talk to other people in the building. How is he around other people? There wasn't a bad word to be said about the young man. And so, we feel really, really comfortable in terms of that."

The addition of Broderick Jones during the first round toughened up the offensive line, and it's fair to make the point that the addition of Keeanu Benton did the same thing to the defensive line when the Steelers made him the 49th overall pick.

While Porter worked in the visibility of the open spaces, Benton did his work among the mass of flesh in the middle of the line of scrimmage. Porter's toughness and competitiveness came in the form of 20 passes defensed, while Benton's 10 tackles for loss in 2022 identified him as a run-stuffer and his 4.5 sacks the same season teased that he can be more than a two-down player in the NFL.

Benton (6-4, 309) also offered the Steelers the rare combination of being 21 years old with 36 starts over 4 years with a Wisconsin program that consistently holds its own in the Big Ten, which made the total package irresistible in the middle of the second round.

"When you watch a guy who makes it all the way through four years, you can see his game is a little more polished than maybe a young guy," said Austin. "You're going to see his techniques are a little bit more refined. What he sees, how he sees, blocking schemes are going to be a little bit better than maybe a younger guy's, and those things show up on tape with him.

Added Austin, "You see a guy who is explosive, he is heavy-handed, he gets extension on guys, and when you see those things and that he can roll his hips, I think (defensive line coach) Karl Dunbar and those guys do a great job of teaching players rush plans and how to use their strengths to become a better rusher. I think (Benton) has some of the baseline abilities. That's what we see, and we are counting on him to be a run-stopper and get some bonus out of him as a pass-rusher."

As the picking entered the third round, the Steelers owned the 80th selection but then nothing until two choices in the seventh round, and because their research into this class convinced them there were quality players to be had even into the later rounds General Manager Omar Khan stayed aggressive. Even though nothing had materialized in terms of a package for that 32nd pick, he continued to work the phones. When Carolina offered its 93rd overall pick plus a late No. 4 (132 overall) for the Steelers' No. 80, the swap was approved. The Steelers got a foothold into the fourth round and used pick No. 93 to add a tight end who could be described as "mobile, agile, and hostile."

Darnell Washington is 6-7, 264, which is bigger than Tunch Ilkin was when he was a starting offensive tackle for the Steelers throughout the 1980s. And while Washington certainly is athletic enough for the position at the NFL level, what he brings is a physical presence on the end of the line of scrimmage that will make him a best friend for quarterbacks and running backs and a nightmare for defensive ends and linebackers.

"It's all over the tape. He's a giant human being who takes pride in blocking," said offensive coordinator Matt Canada. "He enjoys being a blocker. He has been quoted as saying he sees himself as a sixth offensive lineman. He understands what his body can do, and I do think he can catch the ball. They had so many weapons at Georgia, and I'm not sure his stats are maybe what you might think they could be. He's definitely a blocker, and as a person, we met him in Indy at the Combine, and we had him back (in Pittsburgh for a pre-draft visit). Just a really, really good person. Likes football, likes being physical. Really excited about him."

In the recent past, the Pittsburgh Steelers have gone through separate regular seasons where they finished last in the NFL in rushing and last in the NFL in stopping the run. And apart from the adverse impact on a team's record of being unable to run it or stop it, the idea of being handled at the line of scrimmage in enough games to rank last in those categories was especially distasteful.

So far, this draft class indicates the Steelers are adamant about that not happening anymore.

Advertising