Labriola On

Labriola on grades, draft as theater, 1974

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Finally, mock draft season is over, but the bad news accompaniment to that good news is it's now grading the draft season. Mock drafts may be pointless, but putting a grade on a team's draft 15 minutes after it's over adds a layer of meaningless to the pointlessness.

• What makes these somewhat humorous is the same people who do the mock drafts then come back with their grades, and it always seems as though teams get good grades if they end up doing what the mock drafter suggested/proposed, while the grades are lower for the teams that dare defy the prognosticator.

• Another part of the draft grading process that's rather unrealistic is when a team is criticized for "reaching" for a player. As an example, the Steelers have been criticized for "reaching" for a running back in general and Najee Harris in particular because using a first-round pick on a running back isn't "good value" because recent drafts have shown that good running backs can be found in the later rounds and even as undrafted rookies.

• Just because something can be true doesn't mean it always is or will be true. As an example, it can be true that hitting the Powerball jackpot can provide a very comfortable retirement for someone, and there assuredly are examples that can be referenced of it happening. But are you not going to buy Apple stock because it represents a significant investment and instead hope to win the lottery with a $5 ticket?

• I admit that one year ago at this time I was opposed to the Steelers using a second-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on J.K. Dobbins or Cam Akers, both running backs, because Chase Claypool was a more dynamic offensive weapon. But that same line of thinking is why Najee Harris was the correct pick this time.

• The notion that it's always a reach to spend a first-round pick on a running back is a one-size-fits-all philosophy in an industry where the best and most successful adapt and improvise. Not every running back in every draft class should be classified as a reach in the first round, because there isn't an era of professional football when using a first-round pick on Barry Sanders, or Emmitt Smith, or Eric Dickerson, or Franco Harris could legitimately be considered a bad move.

• It's not the what. It's the who.

• And Najee Harris was the best running back prospect in this 2021 draft class, because he's an all-situations player. He's like Devin Bush, or T.J. Watt, or Minkah Fitzpatrick, or Cam Heyward. Each one of those four guys plays a positions that demand different skills for different situations, but they never have to come off the field because they can do whatever is necessary whenever it's necessary.

• Harris is the same kind of player. He can run it or catch it, line up in the backfield, in the slot, or split wide of the formation. On third-and-6, he can be a check-down option, run a route down the field, or step up and stick his helmet into the chest of a pass-rusher to give the quarterback a little extra time to do what needs to be done.

• Remember that play last season when Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass down the field for Anthony McFarland, who couldn't make the catch and looked rather clumsy attempting to do so by getting turned around and not being able to find the ball? Harris makes that play.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOO …
• I admit to being one of those "get off my lawn" types when it comes to the spectacle the NFL Draft is today. And really, it starts with what has become Commissioner Roger Goodell's annual goading of the fans who boo him.

• It seems undignified for the Commissioner of one of the world's most powerful and popular professional sports leagues to pander to the bros in the audience by egging them on as they uphold what has become a sophomoric tradition of booing him starting with the first time he steps to the podium to make an announcement.

• But I have to give Roger Goodell credit for turning the NFL Draft – essentially a non-sporting event sporting event – into a television ratings bonanza for the NFL and the league's broadcast partners. According to NFL Media, "The 2021 NFL Draft in Cleveland was seen by an average audience of 6.1 million viewers (TV + Digital) across ABC, ESPN, NFL Network, ESPN Deportes and digital channels for the three-day event, making it the third most-watched Draft ever. With 6.1 million viewers, 2021 is basically flat compared to 2019 (6.2 million), which is the second most-watched draft behind 2020 (8.3 million). This year, the city of Cleveland averaged a 10.9 household rating for the NFL Draft, which is the highest-rated local market for 2021 and the highest host city Draft rating on record since different cities began hosting the event in 2015."

• Giving credit where it's due, Goodell also was behind the idea to move the site of the NFL Draft to different cities, which has proved to be a boon to the process of keeping local interest high, which makes for a better viewing experience on television.

• And another benefit is that the presentation of the NFL Draft allowed the broadcast partners to "experiment" with the kind of streaming that's going to be a bigger part of how people will consume NFL football. Again, according to NFL Media, "ESPN's livestream coverage of the Draft went out to five platforms: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, the ESPN App, and – for the first time ever – TikTok. Those streams tallied 8.9 million total views and 57.7 million minutes of watch time (live). The views were up 41 percent from the 2019 similar presentation."

ANOTHER REASON WHY 1974 WAS THE BEST
• It's no longer a debate, especially among those familiar with the history of the National Football League, that the Steelers' haul in the 1974 NFL Draft was the best in the history of professional football and arguably the best in the history of teams picking players.

• Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster were four of their picks over the first five rounds; Donnie Shell was signed as an undrafted rookie directly after the conclusion of the 17th round; and Bill Nunn was the scout who had his fingerprints all over everything. All six of those guys have been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

• Thing is, there was another really good football player drafted by the Steelers as a part of that class. His name is Jimmy Allen.

• It's always reported this way: Four of the Steelers first five picks in the 1974 NFL Draft have busts in the Hall of Fame. Well, Jimmy Allen is that fifth player. At that time, the first five rounds of the draft were held on one day, with the rest conducted the following day. Swann was the No. 1 pick; Lambert was No. 2; No. 3 had been traded to Oakland the previous year in return for veteran defensive lineman Tom Keating; Stallworth was 4a; and Jimmy Allen was 4b, No. 100 overall.

• Because Allen, a cornerback, came to a team that had Mel Blount and J.T. Thomas as the starting cornerbacks in a league where teams regularly attempted fewer than 20 passes a game, he rarely saw the field except for special teams, because there wasn't much sub-package defense being played in that era. He is credited with one kick return for 7 yards in a game against the Browns in November 1974, but outside of that he registered no statistics for the Steelers as a rookie.

• Then came the 1974 AFC Championship Game in Oakland against the Raiders with a trip to Super Bowl IX as the prize to the winner.

• During the 14-game 1974 regular season Raiders receiver Cliff Branch finished with 60 catches for 1,092 yards (18.2 average) and 13 touchdowns in being voted first-team All-Pro. Then in the Divisional Round win over the two-time defending Super Bowl Champion Miami Dolphins, Branch caught three passes for 84 yards (28.0 average) and a touchdown. And then in the AFC Championship Game, Branch was having his way with Mel Blount.

• Midway through the fourth quarter against the Steelers, Branch had eight catches for nearly 180 yards and a 38-yard touchdown. Defensive coordinator Bud Carson had seen enough, and so had Coach Chuck Noll. Blount, one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history, was pulled from the game with about four minutes remaining and the Steelers protecting a 17-13 lead. The guy Noll put into the game to cover Cliff Branch was Jimmy Allen. A rookie.

• Allen allowed Branch just one more catch, and J.T. Thomas' interception of Ken Stabler led to a Steelers touchdown that iced the 24-13 victory. Noll went back to Blount for Super Bowl IX – the obvious move – and Allen was relegated to special teams.

• Strictly a reserve in 1975, Allen had two interceptions, then none in 1976, and then in 1977 Allen had five starts in the secondary, either as a cornerback or a safety, and he finished with five interceptions, which put him second on the team to Blount's six. At 25 years old, Allen issued a play-me-or-trade-me ultimatum to Noll, and he was dealt to the Detroit Lions for a fourth-round draft pick.

• With the Lions, Allen was an immediate and full-time starter. In 60 games played over four seasons in Detroit, Allen started 58, and he posted 24 interceptions and four fumble recoveries in those games. In 1981, he had a career-best nine interceptions to tie for third in the NFL in that category. He finished his career with 31 interceptions and six fumble recoveries, a total of 37 takeaways in 110 career NFL games.

• Jimmy Allen, who died in December 2019, was no Mel Blount; he never was voted to the Pro Bowl; he never received any All-Pro recognition; and his impatience led to an early end to his time in Pittsburgh.

• But don't think for a minute that the guy couldn't play.

THANKS, CAPTAIN OBVIOUS
• Saw a story the other day where the headline on a sports column made the point that the Steelers success in 2021 is going to be all about how well Ben Roethlisberger plays. Way to go out on a limb. This has been true for more than a decade. Next thing you know, we'll be told that Tampa Bay's chances of winning back-to-back Super Bowls depend on Tom Brady.

THE ONLY NECESSARY SUPPLEMENTAL SKILL
• In the category of interesting but meaningless, I offer you the video of Pressley Harvin – the punter the Steelers selected with their second pick on the seventh round – throwing a pretty pass on a fake punt for a 43-yard touchdown in Georgia Tech's game against Miami. Fans can get excited about a punter who can throw, but what's going to be more important for Harvin's ability to beat out Jordan Berry is his ability to hold for Chris Boswell. Harvin can show up at training camp and boom his punts, continue that on into the preseason and maybe complete a pass or two, but if he muffs the ball a couple/three times on placement attempts and Boswell misses as a result, Berry will keep his job.

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