Labriola on getting lucky in Round 1

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Often times, it comes down to the football equivalent of letting the other player hit the ball into the net during a tennis match.

• Teams will spend a calendar year preparing for an NFL Draft, and the process entails scouting visits to the schools, watching hours of video, attending practices and games, attending practices prior to the college all-star games. Then there is the NFL Scouting Combine, followed by Pro Days, followed by pre-draft visits, followed by hours and hours and hours sitting in a conference room trying to make sense of it all and get the hundreds of players ranked in something or an order.

• All of that work, and then sometimes a team’s fate on draft day comes down to pure unadulterated luck. Or to put it more accurately, pure unadulterated stupidity by another team or teams when it finally comes down to the actual picking.

• Take 1987 for example. If Steelers fans think this current group is in need of an injection of talent at cornerback, go back and peruse that 1986 roister. John Swain and Harvey Clayton were the primary starters at cornerback, and the “depth” was provided by the likes of Donnie Elder, Chris Sheffield, and Lupe Sanchez.

• During a season in which only six NFL quarterbacks completed 60 percent of their passes, the Steelers defense allowed opponents to complete 58 percent, and their 22 touchdown passes allowed ranked in the bottom third of the league. Ah, but there seemed to be light at the end of this dark tunnel, because their 6-10 record in 1986 earned the Steelers the 10th overall pick in the 1987 NFL Draft, and that exercise surely would provide them the opportunity to add reinforcements.

• It did. Theoretically, anyway. But it wouldn’t have allowed them to pick the best cornerback in the draft, a future Hall of Fame inductee, and the guy who is the second-best cornerback in franchise history if the Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, and St. Louis Cardinals each hadn’t gagged when it came time to make their respective picks.

• With the fourth, fifth, and sixth overall picks of that 1987 draft, the Packers began this string of incompetence by choosing Auburn running back Brent Fullwood, and then the Browns upped the ante by picking Duke linebacker Mike Junkin, and then the Cardinals did a typical Cardinals thing by choosing Colorado State quarterback Kelly Stouffer.

• Three selections later, the Steelers had the opportunity to turn in a card that had Commissioner Pete Rozelle lean into a microphone and announce, “With the 10th pick in the 1987 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select: Rod Woodson, cornerback from Purdue.”

• Flash forward to April 2004, where Season 2 of the Tommy Maddox Mistake had earned the Steelers the 11th overall pick in the draft, a draft billed as one that contained three elite quarterback prospects in Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger, and as the day began, if the Steelers didn’t believe they needed a quarterback, well, they were deluding themselves.

• Manning and Rivers both were gone before Washington prepared to make the fifth overall pick, which left six teams between the Steelers and the chance at a legitimate franchise quarterback, which meant several of the teams picking ahead of them were going to have to hit the ball into the net.

• The Browns (Miami tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.), Lions (Texas wide receiver Roy Williams), Jaguars (Washington wide receiver Reggie Williams), and Texans (South Carolina cornerback Dunta Robinson) all cooperated, and after Dan Rooney set things straight in the draft room the Steelers made good on their chance to add a Hall of Fame quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger).

• The 2019 NFL Draft will begin three weeks from yesterday, and the Steelers own two things: the 20th overall pick in the first round and a pronounced need for defensive playmakers.

• For the Steelers to come out of the first round with a player who can have a positive impact on their pathetic 2018 total of eight interceptions and 15 total takeaways, relying only on the incompetence of others isn’t going to get them to their goal. And so, even to get them in a reasonable area of the first round where they could trade up and still be left with enough draft capital to address their other needs, the Steelers will need a run on players at another position.

• Like tight end. Or quarterback. Or both.

• A run on quarterbacks is always a possibility, and with a fortnight to go before the actual picking begins, there’s still plenty of time for a team to fall in love. The quarterbacks at this stage who seem to be sure-shot top 20 picks in the upcoming draft are Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, and so that means the Steelers will be rooting hard for Missouri’s Drew Lock and Duke’s Daniel Jones to hear their names called at the top of the round.

• Less likely, but with the potential for a big payoff, would be a mini-run on tight ends, and by mini-run I mean two, because there happen to be two who allegedly are a cut above the rest. Working against this mini-run, of course, is history, because the position traditionally just doesn’t require the kind of draft-day investment the Steelers will need to move some of the prime defensive playmakers within their reach in the first round.

• The two tight ends who were voted to the 2018 Associated Press All-Pro team were Kansas City’s Travis Kelce (first-team) and San Francisco’s George Kittles (second team), and the acknowledged best tight end of this generation is Rob Gronkowski. Kelce was a third-round pick, Kittles was a fifth-round pick, and Gronkowski was a second-round pick.

• So asking for two tight ends to be among the first 19 players selected in this upcoming first round seems to be asking way too much, but, hey, why not? By the way, Steelers fans, their names are Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson.

• If those names are called before the 20th overall pick in the first round, it could create a Christmas morning atmosphere in the Steelers draft room. Just as it did in 1987 and 2004.