Scenes from the 2018 NFL Draft in Dallas and at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Ryan Shazier was very much an integral component of the 2018 NFL Draft for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both his presence, and his absence.
His presence at the site of the draft in Arlington, Texas, touched their hearts and served as an inspiration to all who watched him walk the 20 yards out to the podium with his fiancée, Michelle, to announce the Steelers' first-round draft choice. Seeing how far Shazier had come, through hard work and sheer determination, to walk approximately 20 yards unaided following a severe spinal injury on Dec. 4 in Cincinnati brought some tears to the eyes of team personnel gathered in the Bill Nunn Draft Room as the Steelers conducted their business during Thursday's first round, and his walk brought a standing ovation from the crowd on site inside AT&T Stadium.
And his confirmed absence for the whole 2018 season had created a hole in their defensive lineup that they were expected to use this three-day draft to try to fill.
Shazier, the Steelers' first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, had spent his first four seasons in the NFL becoming the consummate inside-linebacker-for-every-situation. No matter what the opposing offense tried to do, no matter the opponent's personnel grouping, no matter the down-and-distance, no matter the spot on the field, Shazier was an asset for the defense. In fact, in each and every one of those situations, he was the most dynamic player on the field for the Steelers defense.
The draft is how the Steelers have come by all of the dynamic players who have helped the team win an NFL-leading six Lombardi Trophies, and so it was expected that they would go back to this proven formula to find Shazier's replacement. That meant an inside linebacker would be the pick on the first round, and if not on the first round, then certainly during the second or third rounds, which were to be held on Friday.
When the 2018 NFL Draft concluded for the Steelers early on Saturday evening after they had spent the final of their seven selections on an Alabama nose tackle named Joshua Frazier, their tally for the three days included a grand total of zero inside linebackers. None. In fact, no linebackers, period.
"We go into (the draft) wanting to add to every position that we can," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "In the offseason when we signed (unrestricted free agent) Jon Bostic, Jon stared 14 games and was highly productive last season (for the Colts). We're excited about him being with us. Tyler Matakevich got hurt in the same quarter of the same game as Ryan Shazier. Had Tyler not been injured, we might have had a whole different discussion going on, because Tyler was a highly productive special teams guy who really hasn't gotten the opportunity to play. So between Jon and Tyler, we don't know what we have in those two, quite honestly, because Jon is new to us and Tyler will be in the rotation and competition as well."
Maybe that's Colbert trying to put the best spin on an unfortunate turn of events, because the Steelers were very interested in picking an inside linebacker, on the first round for sure. But the way things broke, with Dallas picking Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall and Tennessee trading up above the Steelers to grab Rashaan Evans at 22nd overall being just a couple of the notable examples of their bad luck in this respect.
"If there are positions available to us when we're picking, and they fit, and they're in the right spot, then great," said Colbert. "If they're not, we're not going to reach. We're not going to reach. Coach Tomlin was awesome throughout this process in saying, 'Let's respect the board. Let's look at the best players available, and then we'll adjust from there.'
So, the Steelers stuck to their board, and what their board told them was to add two more safeties – Terrell Edmunds on the first round, and Marcus Allen with their first pick in the fifth round to an existing group that includes third-year pro Sean Davis and unrestricted free agent Morgan Burnett. And maybe that leads the Steelers to consider an adjustment to one of their sub-packages on defense to get more speed and coverage ability on the field.
After the pick of Edmunds on the first round, Mike Tomlin had said, "Anything that you can imagine him doing, you saw him do on Virginia Tech's defensive tape within Coach Bud Foster's scheme. You saw him play free. You saw him play strong. You saw him play deep middle. You saw him play half-field. You saw him play sub-package linebacker … We got a sharp, young, versatile guy who's a very good communicator who plays with physicality. Quite simply, he checked all the boxes for us."
About Marcus Allen, Colbert said, "We had taken Terrell Edmunds in the first round, and we still liked Marcus Allen a lot. The safety group was a nice group, and when Marcus was still available in the fifth round, we really liked his physicality. Marcus is a guy who knocks people backward when he hits them, and he does it very often. To add a guy like him in the fifth round even though we had taken (a safety) in the first round, it was a pretty easy pick because he was clearly the highest-rated guy we had left on our board at that point."
Both Edmunds and Allen drew praise over the weekend for being physical, for being solid tacklers, for being versatile in terms of defending both the run and the pass, for being smart and good communicators. All of those qualities certainly translate to safety play in a traditional sense, but when one considers the job description of a sub-package linebacker, the same skill-set is what's required to be effective in that role as well.
"I think (the three safeties added so far this offseason) can help our football team in a number of ways, and it's probably something that's just indicative of the safety position in today's NFL," said Tomlin. "Not only are they capable safeties, but in sub-package defense when you start putting defensive backs down in the box, several of these guys have had that in their past, and we're excited about looking at that as a potential component of our play.
"And also, safeties can be a significant element of special teams play in the National Football League. To be able to add some guys who not only play the safety position, but also are physical tacklers who can help us as potential second-level defenders in sub-package defenses, I think it has been a good weekend for us in that perspective."
A SAFETY WITH MAD TACKLING STATS**
Maybe it was by design, or maybe by necessity because of the way the draft unfolded, but the Steelers ended up with two hybrid safeties and no inside linebackers through the first five rounds of the draft. It was Terrell Edmunds in the first round, and then it was Marcus Allen from Penn State with their first of two fifth-round picks, the 148th selection overall.
At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Allen is a virtual physical clone of Edmunds, and he left Penn State ranked fifth in school history with 321 tackles. Allen had nine double-digit tackle games during his career at Penn State where he started 46 games over four seasons.
"To me, he is a big-time tackler," said defensive backs coach Tom Bradley. "He will strike you. He is a very physical tackler, a real physical person around the ball. Probably the best part of his game is how physical he is. When we watched him strike people, he gets after you pretty good."
Allen has deep ties to Pittsburgh even though he attended Dr. Henry Wise High School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. His godfather is Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin, who attended Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh and then Pitt before moving onto the NFL. Allen's father was born and raised in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood and attended Westinghouse High School.
"I haven't spoken to (Martin) yet, but I'm with my father right now," said Allen after the Steelers picked him. "It's all tears of joy right now. Everyone has been anxious, anxious wondering where I was going to go, but it's a perfect situation. This is my home, man. It's my hometown. My grandmother is from there. My grandfather is from there – my whole family. I'm just so excited."
THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF RBs
With the second pick of the fifth round, the Steelers added a running back, or at least a multi-skilled college player who will concentrate on running back once he gets to Pittsburgh for rookie minicamp.
Jaylen Samuels, 6-0, 225, was a jack-of-all-offensive-trades during his four seasons at North Carolina State, but once he gets to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex the team plans to turn him over to running backs coach James Saxon. But even if Samuels will concentrate on running back instead of dividing his time between tight end, where the NFL judges him to be too short, and wide receiver, where he is a bit too heavy.
"I think the value in a kid like him, for a coach, is you can use him in a lot of different areas like N.C. State did," said running backs coach James Saxon. "In terms of whether or not he got an opportunity there purely to be just a running back, that doesn't really matter at this point to me. … because that's why he got drafted. He's going to get an opportunity to do everything we do in our room in terms of being a running back."
Samuels did a little bit of everything in college, where he set the North Carolina State record for receptions in a career (202) and ranked second in school history in total touchdowns (47), fourth in touchdown catches (19), and sixth in touchdown runs (28). In the Wolfpack's 2017 season opener, Samuels caught 15 passes.
JOSHUA FRAZIER, MEET WALLY PIPP
High school players who go to play their college football at Alabama get a taste of professional sports in one sense very early in their time there. If you don't perform to expectations, or if you sustain an injury, or if you otherwise do something to lose your spot on the depth chart even for a day, there is someone else every bit as good and in many cases better, who is waiting to take your spot.
That was what happened to Joshua Frazier, a 6-3, 321, nose tackle who was the Steelers final pick in this draft. A five-star recruit from Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Arkansas, Frazier played a lot as a freshman in 2014, and then in 2015 he sustained an injury that limited him to six games.
"He was a five-star kid out of Arkansas, and he played a lot his freshman year until he got hurt his second year and that's when Da'Ron Payne came in and took over that job," said Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, who was in the same job with the Crimson Tide during Frazier's career in Alabama. "It's the luck of the draw sometimes when you go to a team that has a lot of talent. It's almost like, some people say, that Wally Pipp story – he took a day off and never got his job back (from Lou Gehrig). Frazier didn't start many games because of you know, Jonathan Allen, Da'Ron Payne, [Jarran] Reed, [Cam] Robinson, Da'Shawn Hand, Isaiah Buggs. Hopefully this kid can do some things that we think he can, and it will be fun coaching him again."
Frazier played in 40 games over his four seasons at Alabama, and he totaled 28 tackles and two sacks, both of which came in College Football Playoff games.