Labriola On

Labriola on Day 3 of the NFL Draft

NFL Draft classes. College recruiting classes. Pictures of newborn babies. Within each of those categories is an automatic benefit of the doubt clause factored in when it comes to any degree of self-evaluation. No couple believes their baby is anything but the cutest, and it's a historic fact that those involved in either the draft business or the recruiting industry always use an optimistic tone when asked for an appraisal of their work product.

The Steelers have participated in each of the 88 drafts in NFL history, and their role in the 88th such exercise concluded early Saturday evening. During the course of those three days they picked seven players and at some point on Sunday will announce the signing of a number of rookie free agents to put the finishing touches on the college group that forever will be identified as the inaugural class of the Khan-Tomlin era. That inaugural class then will serve as one of the many historical markers contributing to the legacy of one of the NFL's most storied franchises. No pressure or anything.

The names of the Steelers seven draft picks might not yet be committed to the memories of those inclined to slap a grade on it anyway, but what might be helpful is if instead of learning who they are everyone concentrated instead on what they are.

Who they are: offensive tackle Broderick Jones, cornerback Joey Porter Jr., nose tackle Keeanu Benton, tight end Darnell Washington, outside linebacker Nick Herbig, cornerback Cory Trice Jr., and offensive lineman Spencer Anderson. What they are: a young group of football-lovers who believe that when it comes to the issue of butt-kicking on the field, it is better to give than to receive. That was the plan, anyway.

"Really feel like we're a better football team today than we were at 7:59 p.m. on Thursday," said General Manager Omar Khan. "Can't wait until we get to rookie minicamp in a couple of weeks and really see our new Steelers in action. It's going to be fun. I think we're in a good place."

An overview of the 2023 draft class shows the Steelers added 3 300-plus-pound linemen, a couple of 6-foot-2-plus cornerbacks, and an offensive-linemen-sized tight end.

"I don't know if size was a point of emphasis, per se," said Coach Mike Tomlin when asked about it, "but obviously we value physicality and those who are capable of playing the brand of football that we value."

The Steelers finished last in the NFL in rushing for the 2020 regular season, and they finished last in the NFL in run defense for the 2021 season. In neither of those two years did the Steelers play the brand of football the franchise has valued historically, and while there were improvements made since those embarrassments, going from worst-to-first in those two categories is a process. The idea is that the 2023 draft class contributes to that process.

Running the football effectively and preventing opponents from doing the same is part of an overall mind-set that's a requirement for teams wanting to compete for championships consistently. With that as the ultimate goal, there was some specialized shopping done. Jones and Washington came from a Georgia program that was 29-1 with back-to-back national championships during the two most recent college seasons. Benton and Herbig were significant components of a Wisconsin program that lacks the cache of Ohio State or Michigan but nevertheless holds its own in the Big Ten year after year with grit and perseverance.

When Porter is described as physical, competitive, and relentless, it's another way of saying that he's his father's son. And according to secondary coach Grady Brown, Trice just won't give ground.

"A lot of times in today's game," explained Brown, "guys walk down to the line of scrimmage and as soon as the receiver moves or he flinches, they back up and we're giving back the space that we walked down (to the line of scrimmage) to take away. (Trice) doesn't do that. He's been coached well at Purdue by those guys on how to play aggressive. Really, I shouldn't say aggressive, just stay on the line of scrimmage and make receivers work."

Over the past few seasons – particularly during the ones where the Steelers were either last in rushing offense or last in rushing defense – Tomlin has referenced in-game events that told a tale of being physically handled on one side or the other of the line of scrimmage. Apparently, not getting handled on one side or the other of the line of scrimmage is a point of emphasis this offseason. A point Benton said was made to him during the pre-draft process.

"Just talking to Coach Tomlin, the main thing I had taken away from that was he wants goons out there, and he wants somebody who's not afraid to get his nose dirty, and I feel like I am the best option for that guy."

When asked later whether Benton accurately relayed the conversation, Tomlin denied nothing even if he was disappointed that his young'un had said it out loud.

"That's an accurate description," said Tomlin, "but I'll give him some media training so he can keep some of our private conversations private."

Then again, maybe it's time to abandon the subtle approach, because subtly is not a quality that has any place along an NFL line of scrimmage when the idea is to win the series of one-on-one confrontations that erupt each and every time the ball is snapped. Through this free agency period and now the draft, the Steelers have added or retained players on both sides of the ball who aren't afraid to get their noses dirty, which is where it all has to start.

And that's really all this is. A start. Because even though there are going to be judgments levied, there are going to be some individuals unjustly criticized and others prematurely anointed, the three days of the 2023 NFL Draft have combined to be nothing more than another preliminary part of the on-going process. Accurate conclusions cannot be reached, and those who try anyway can cast themselves in the role of a permanent punchline.

Which is exactly what happened when the following passage appeared in the Jan. 30, 1974, editions of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It was written in response to the first five rounds of the two-day 1974 NFL Draft, during which the Steelers had picked Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, cornerback Jimmy Allen, and Mike Webster on Jan. 29:

"The Steelers seem to have come out of the first five rounds of the draft appreciably strengthened at wide receiver but nowhere else. They didn't get a tight end, and the ones remaining are more suspect than prospect. They didn't get a punter, although none of the nation's best collegiate punters went in the first five rounds. They didn't get an offensive tackle who might've shored up what could well become a weakness. What they did get was Swann, who seems to be a sure-pop to help; Lambert, who figures to be the No. 5 linebacker if he pans out; and three question marks."

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