"Our bottom line is we think we're a better team today than we were (before the draft)," said General Manager Kevin Colbert, "and that's always the goal coming out of this process.
An NFL team being pleased with its newest draft class falls into the same category as parents believing their newborn is the cutest baby in the maternity ward, and so the Steelers contending the nine picks they made during the three days of the 2021 NFL Draft strengthened their roster is hardly breaking news. But when it's a team like the Steelers, which for the last 50-plus years has enjoyed success using the draft as its primary method of roster-building, and it sticks to its script it has a decent chance to be correct in that assumption.
In the run-up to this draft, there seemed to be a couple of themes the Steelers wanted to follow: They would prioritize guys who played their 2020 college seasons over those who didn't in cases of otherwise equal evaluations. And while Matthew 5:5 tells us: "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth," that's not the way it works between the white lines on an NFL field.
"I know we were really interested in guys who had an opportunity to play in 2020," said Coach Mike Tomlin about Rule No. 1. "No disrespect to those who didn't play in 2020 or who participated in conferences that had uncertainty in that area, but we had a certain level of comfort with people who had fluid resumes and participation in 2020. When it was close, as Kevin had mentioned on several occasions, we were going to lean toward those who played in 2020."
None of the nine players the Steelers drafted opted out in 2020, and the adjective that kept cropping up in the post-pick evaluation of most of the guys they added was "nasty."
"That play demeanor is something we always covet," said Tomlin. "I just think it's a component of football that's time-tested and supersedes all trends and things of that nature, so I don't know if that was a new discussion or a new discovery for us."
A quick synopsis of the players the Steelers added on Saturday:
DAN MOORE JR.
Their first pick of the final day was a repeat of the blueprint the Steelers appeared to be following in making Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, and Kendrick Green their first three selections of this draft. Dan Moore Jr. was a full-time starting offensive tackle for the final three of his seasons at Texas A&M, and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm sees him as a perfect fit for what the Steelers are trying to establish along their revamped unit.
"In terms of what we're looking for in the (offensive line) room, these are exactly the type of guys we want," said Klemm. "Guys with position flexibility who played at a high level, who have shown their ability through being healthy, and we've addressed those needs. Just really happy with the results right now."
Moore started 37 games at tackle for the Aggies, which means he spent three full seasons going against SEC defenses. Klemm said Moore will come to the Steelers and line up at tackle, even though some projections indicate he might also be able to slide inside to guard. And even though Moore came across as polite and soft-spoken in his initial media session after being drafted, Klemm expressed no concern that this 6-foot-5, 315 pound prospect is a shrinking violet.
"Yeah, I mean guys can be a certain way off the field and can turn it on once they get onto the field," said Klemm. "This is a guy who is more than capable of being nasty, and playing physically, of finishing, and all of those types of things … The guy has finished and pounded people in the dirt. Sometimes schematically what people are asked to do at the collegiate level or the NFL level, sometimes you can't do certain things because it's not within that scheme, but there are plays where we've seen him finish guys off and do the extra, take guys to the sideline and all that. It's not flashes. He plays consistently at a high level with a high motor. I'm really excited about that."
Moore's college experience may not be sufficient for him to come into the league as an immediate plug-and-play starter, but Klemm does not see him as a developmental project.
"I don't view him as a project at all," said Klemm. "We're throwing him right into the mix in terms of competing. We haven't decided if it's going to be right tackle or left tackle. He's capable of playing both sides, but he's a guy who's started over 30 games in the SEC. There are a lot of guys in that conference who will be in this league soon or they're in the league now. So I think he's more than ready to compete and accept the challenge that's ahead of him."
The Steelers stayed in College Station, Texas, when they finally got around to picking a defensive player after going with offense with their first four selections. Buddy Johnson is a 6-2, 240-pound inside linebacker who at this stage of his development is more Vince Williams than Devin Bush when it comes to his playing style. He is more downhill than sideline-to-sideline, and his forte right now is playing against the run.
"Buddy was a team captain (in 2020), but he was also the leader of that group," said Colbert. "And that was a pretty good group they had, as evidenced by the number of picks they had the last couple of days."
Texas A&M had the No. 1-ranked defense in the SEC in 2020, and Johnson led that unit with 86 tackles, and 8.5 tackles for loss. One of his two forced fumbles created the fourth quarter takeaway that led to the Aggies' upset win over then fourth-ranked Florida. Johnson's four sacks was second best on the team.
"It always speaks to me because that's one of the first things I want to see," said inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky. "How far from the line of scrimmage the linebacker is when the ball is coming towards him, and when do you attack the line of scrimmage. We call that going downhill, and Buddy does that really well. You can tell that he's been around football a long time. I think he needs some work on just cleaning up some things just to be more proficient up here in the NFL … but the fact that he attacks as his main weapon is really good. You can't teach that."
During the pre-draft news conference, Colbert had said the available defensive line talent in this draft was as lean as he had seen it in a while, and so when the Steelers saw Wisconsin's Isaiahh Loudermilk floating around without a team midway through the fifth round they made a move to rectify that situation.
The Steelers traded back into the fifth round of this draft by sending the Miami Dolphins their fourth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft to be able to select the 6-foot-7 defensive end from Wisconsin.
"We're pretty sure we'll have a compensatory pick in that fourth round range (in 2022)," said Colbert, "and we just wanted to get back into that fifth round this year, particularly when a guy like Isaiah was available. He played in a 3-4 defense (at Wisconsin), he has the length that you like, and he has played techniques that he'll continue to be taught here."
Another reason Loudermilk was so attractive was he embodied what Hall of Fame General Manager George Young referred to as The Planet Theory. According to Young, The Planet Theory held that there are only so many men on the planet who possess unique size and difference-making athleticism, and so the process of acquiring one for your football team never should be taken for granted.
"There's a scarcity when you talk about the size of Isaiahh Loudermilk, and that was one of the things that was really intriguing to us," said Tomlin. "Also intriguing to us was that he's had a lot of experience in a very similar defensive scheme (to ours), so it wasn't a lot of guesswork. Much like it was when we were looking at T.J. Watt when he was coming out of Wisconsin, it was an easy evaluation because all of the things he did at Wisconsin we'll be asking him to do similar things for us."
Having lost Bud Dupree and Ola Adeniyi during free agency, the Steelers entered this draft well aware that they were frighteningly thin at outside linebacker, and they made an effort to address that with their pick in the sixth round. Quincy Roche began his college career at Temple, and from 2017-19 there he recorded 26 sacks, 40 tackles for loss, seven passes defensed, six forced fumbles, and five fumble recoveries. In 2020, Roche was a graduate transfer at Miami, and his production fell to 4.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
When asked about the difference, defensive coordinator Keith Butler noted that players in similar situations experience a drop-off in production that often can be traced to being somewhat unfamiliar with the system and his new teammates.
A cornerback at Oklahoma, Norwood is being listed as a safety after being drafted by the Steelers. In some pre-draft evaluations, Norwood was criticized for his tackling, but the guy did show a knack for intercepting the ball.
Norwood finished his college career with six interceptions, but five of those came in 2020. He also was voted the outstanding defensive player in the Cotton Bowl win over Florida, during which he intercepted Kyle Trask and returned it 34 yards. Norwood also finished his college career with 21 passes defensed.
As strange as sports have been during this year of a global pandemic, there was something fitting about the Steelers concluding their draft by picking a punter who is 6-1, 255 pounds.
"Pressley Harvin is a big-legged guy, and when I say that I mean he has a naturally powerful leg," said Colbert. "He averaged 44.7 yards per punt for his career, and I believe his average was 47.6 for the 2020 season. It's just a natural, powerful leg. We're excited to have him come in and join the competition."
PUTTING A BOW ON THE 2021 DRAFT
"I can't think of a last day of a draft when I haven't been excited," said Tomlin at the end of the three days. "New men to work with is exciting. Getting to know these guys over the past several months through our research brings a certain level of anticipation. We're excited about getting started with them. There are a lot of reasons to be excited, but if you're in this business, particularly from a coach's standpoint, players are the lifeblood. New, quality, talented young men to work with makes you smile."