The question was typical of the kind most often posed at the conclusion of a particular NFL Draft: Do you feel like you accomplished what you wanted throughout this process?
Coach Mike Tomlin cracked a wide smile and answered, “Yes, but we always do.”
The 2019 NFL Draft concluded for the Steelers late on Saturday afternoon, with the team making nine of the 10 picks it had when the proceedings began, and things admittedly look good on paper.
Five of the nine picks were defensive players who have the kind of skills that appear to translate well to the new kind of football being played at the professional level. The team addressed depth chart deficiencies at wide receiver and tight end. It added a running back whose skill-set is complementary, rather than repetitive, of the two young players at the top of the depth chart at the position. A bunch of the picks should fortify special teams, from returning kicks to covering them. And for good measure, there was a big, experienced developmental offensive lineman added to the pipeline because there is no such thing as having enough big, experienced developmental offensive linemen in the pipeline.
But there were other boxes the Steelers apparently wanted to check with these prospects before making them draft picks. Running backs coach Eddie Faulkner provided an example of what the Steelers were seeking as he was discussing fourth-round pick Benny Snell.
“You have to love the game, for as much time as we spend in this building perfecting our craft and having that (drive) to be that best player that you can be,” said Faulkner. “You have to love (football). If you don't, you aren't going to be able to maximize who you want to be. Good things happen to players like that. So that's important across the board, at any position we are talking about, when you're putting a team together. But absolutely, that’s a very important factor, and Benny is at the very top of guys who demonstrate that characteristic.”
The knee-jerk reaction would be to associate that as a response to the kind of distraction authored by Antonio Brown down the stretch of the 2018 season, but in truth the Steelers always are looking for the right intangibles in the players they choose to add to their locker room. It’s just that the reality of it is it’s an imperfect science.
Colbert hinted at the kind of intangibles the Steelers seek, and Snell again was used as an example.
“In today’s college environment, a lot of these kids are skipping their bowl games as they’re heading into their pro careers,” said Colbert. “That’s a choice that they make, but when a player, like Benny Snell did, ends up playing for his team in his bowl game we really like to acknowledge that and give him credit for putting his team and that win over his own priorities.”
And so if people might want to use the team-first, passion-for-the-game as a theme for this draft class, it’s unlikely anyone associated with the Steelers is going to argue against it.
“In terms of football bloodlines, it’s not that difficult (to find players who have that because) it’s a genetic game,” said Coach Mike Tomlin. “Particularly when you get to my age, you know everyone’s dad. But we do value the football character element of it, the commitment to the game, the grit, and we feel really good about the grit displayed in a number of these guys. Like Kevin outlined, Benny Snell is a guy who really stands out in that regard of a guy who was a central figure in the culture change in terms of what went on at Kentucky, competing and winning and what he was able to do down there. We had a great deal of respect not only for his talents but his body of work over the course of three years down there in Kentucky that speaks to that football pedigree, to that grit element.”
The following is a synopsis of the Steelers’ six Day 3 draft picks:
RB BENNY SNELL (5-10, 224)
NFL coaches are well aware that among the most difficult things to do is run the football when the opponent knows you’re going to run the football. And left unsaid is that giving the ball to the same guy play after play after play in an attempt to accomplish that goal simply adds to the degree of difficulty.
In the 2019 Citrus Bowl, Kentucky had seen a 27-7 fourth-quarter lead over Penn State shrink to 27-24 when the Wildcats offense got the ball back at their own 25-yard line with 4:12 remaining and the Nittany Lions being in possession of their full complement of three timeouts.
Everyone knew what the Wildcats were going to do, and it also was no secret when it came to which man they would turn to get that job done. To that point in the game, Benny Snell had rushed for 129 yards on 18 carries and scored two touchdowns, and the rest of the Kentucky offense had combined for 153 yards rushing and passing combined.
Snell carried the ball eight straight times; he gained 4 yards on a third-and-3, and he gained 6 yards on a second-and-6. His final total in terms of real estate gained was 25 yard in eight carries, but what was more significant at the time was that his running ate up all but one second on the clock while also forcing the Nittany Lions to use all of their three timeouts in a futile effort to do something about what Snell was doing to them.
“My style is hard-nosed football,” said Snell. “I’m grinding for every yard. I’m physical in pass protection. I’m a physical player. I want to mirror myself after a Marshawn Lynch or an Adrian Peterson. Just fighting for extra yards and giving your all.”
Said running backs coach Eddie Faulkner, “Very evident when you sit down with this young man is he has passion for the game, how much he loves it, how he loves being around it. We were very interested in finding someone who had a passion and just loves football, and that's Benny Snell. As soon as you turn on his tape, and watch how he plays the game, he mirrors that same amount of passion. He plays physical, plays hard, and quite honestly represents the Steelers brand, as you watch him play as a football player. I had the opportunity to work with him on his Pro Day. He was very intense, very intuitive, and it very important to him. We saw the things that we needed to see that help complement the current roster of running backs, and we're very excited to have him part of our running back family.”
TE ZACH GENTRY (6-8, 265)
The argument for the Steelers to use a first-round pick on a tight end should T.J. Hockenson somehow be available to them when their turn came was that it would provide an opportunity for the team to pick another Heath Miller. Even had the Steelers been interested in such a scenario, they never had an opportunity to consider Hockenson, but in at least one way they did get another Heath Miller when they used their fifth-round pick on Michigan’s Zach Gentry.
What makes Gentry similar to Miller is that both of them were high school quarterbacks before becoming tight ends once they got to college. Miller made his transformation at Virginia, Gentry at Michigan.
“He was a quarterback, so I would say he's more adept at the receiving end (of the position),” said tight ends coach James Daniel about Gentry. “He has some adjusting to do. He can become a good blocker, I think. But I also think the kid is excited about it and willing.”
After being named Michigan’s most improved player in 2017, Gentry was a full-time starter in 2018 during which he caught 32 passes for 514 yards and two touchdowns. More significant than the volume of catches was that 23 of the 32 resulted in first downs or touchdowns.
“The position I had played my entire life was quarterback, but when I sat down with Coach [Jim] Harbaugh, he kind of laid out for me what he thought would be best for my future, with my body frame, and things of that nature,” said Gentry. “(He thought) being a little shy of 6-8 and 240 pounds at the time would probably make me a more successful tight end than quarterback at the next level.”
OLB SUTTON SMITH (6-0, 233)
Once upon a time, not all that long ago, there was something known as a prototype 3-4 linebacker. With how multiple offenses have become, with how defenses now have to adapt to multiple formations and personnel packages without the luxury of being able to substitute, defenses have had to learn to value versatility over the prototype.
What Smith showed he could do at Northern Illinois was rush the passer without fitting anyone’s mold. In 2017, Smith broke the school record for sacks in a season by posting 14, and then the following season he broke his own school record by posting 15. In the process, Smith was voted the MAC Defensive Player of the Year in each of those back-to-back seasons.
“This guy rushes the passer,” said Colbert, “and he has a great motor.”
DE ISAIAH BUGGS (6-3, 295)
The “next man up” philosophy applies to every level of football, but what’s somewhat unusual is for a player who ends up being drafted into the NFL serving in the role as that “next man.” That’s what Isaiah Buggs did at Alabama, and when provided with an opportunity created by injuries to some of the defensive linemen above him on the depth chart in 2018, Buggs responded with 9.5 sacks.
“He was the No. 1 JUCO kid coming out in 2017,” said defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, who worked with Buggs when he was an assistant coach at Alabama under Nick Saban. “Isaiah was explosive. He was a kid who could get on the edge … a good pass rusher over the offensive guard. He was one of the emotional leaders for Alabama when I was there, and you saw that this year when he played.”
ILB ULYSEES GILBERT (6-0, 230)
“Ulysees Gilbert is outside linebacker capable – fast, a space player,” said Colbert. “He runs 4.48. He's an active guy. In today's football, a lot of times that SAM linebacker is removed from the formation and plays over the slot. We think Ulysees can compete for special teams play, as well as give us the new type of athleticism that you look for that we talked about with Devin Bush.”
Gilbert tied the school record at Akron for games played in a career by appearing in each of his 51 possible games, with 39 starts, during which he contributed 359 tackles and 9.5 sacks.
“He was just really a genuine kid when he came up here,” said inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky. “He likes to play the game, likes to run around and hit people. In today's game, a lot of inside linebackers have to be special teamers. That's their first job. All of the rookies, that's their real job when they get here, because they’re going to make our team because of special teams. The fact that he can play inside the box or out of the box on defense is something we also like. That's where the game is going.”
T DERWIN GRAY (6-4, 320)
Overcoming adversity is a natural part of becoming a successful professional athlete, and a prospect’s ability to do that once he hits the NFL often helps determine whether he makes it or not. Derwin Gray arrives at the professional level with a decent amount of experience in that area.
In Gray’s five years at Maryland, he played for four different head coaches, four different position coaches, and three different offensive coordinators. Then during his final college season, fellow offensive lineman Jordan McNair died of heatstroke suffered at a team workout.
“It was definitely tough, especially when everything first went down,” Gray told The Washington Post about McNair’s death. “I just always try to make my game and live through him and make sure I always go out there and represent him well because I know he would love to be in the position I’m in right now.”
The Steelers see Gray beginning his NFL career working with the offensive tackles, but Colbert said his body type also should allow him to play guard at the professional level as well.