Labriola On

Labriola on Heismans, 2018's camp phenom

Ready or not, here it comes:

• The narrative was introduced on April 24, which was the second of the three-day 2020 NFL Draft but the first day in which the Steelers were active participants, and it came across as a message, or maybe even more of a challenge, issued by Coach Mike Tomlin.

• As coaches who are deft manipulators of the media are wont to do, Tomlin delivered his message/challenge even though the answer to the question posed during that particular virtual joust with the media didn't necessarily require him to take that tack.

• When asked how third-round pick Alex Highsmith, the newest outside linebacker candidate for the Steelers' 3-4 alignment, would be utilized, Tomlin said, "In regards to play, Alex adds quality depth to the position where you need quality rush men. We now have three Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks in the AFC North. We've got to employ people to hunt those guys. Hopefully he'll aid us in that regard."

• The Steelers find themselves in a conference that no longer contains Tom Brady but in a division where the other three teams will be starting a quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy during their final season of college football before joining the NFL as first-round draft picks.

• Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow each were made the first overall pick in the draft by the Browns and Bengals, respectively, and in Baltimore Lamar Jackson will begin his third season as the Ravens' starter fresh off a 2019 in which he was voted MVP of the NFL.

• Burrow will enter the NFL coming off one of the most spectacular seasons for a quarterback in college football history, both in terms of his individual accomplishments and for leading his LSU teammates to a national championship. But even with that, the NFL can be a cruel place for rookie quarterbacks, because most often they begin competing at the highest level with a team that had to be awful to earn the right to draft them in the first place. Another hurdle for Burrow will be an unprecedented offseason in which meetings had to be handled virtually and the opportunities to develop a rapport with his new teammates through on-field practice sessions were nonexistent.

• Mayfield will play his third professional season as a 25-year-old, and his first two years in the NFL have followed a somewhat common course. As a rookie in Cleveland, he came on like gangbusters by completing 63.8 percent in 13 games as a starter to go along with 27 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions, and a rating of 93.7. But as often happens in the NFL, once opponents build a library of video on a player it becomes easier to devise ways to neutralize him, and Mayfield took a bit of a step back in his sophomore season. He finished 2019 having completed 59.4 percent for 22 touchdowns, 21 interceptions, and a rating of 78.8.

• At various points last season, Jackson was being billed as the ultimate offensive weapon for quarterbacking the Ravens to a 14-2 record and the No. 1 seed in the AFC Playoffs by completing 66.1 percent of his passes for 36 touchdowns and six interceptions, while also rushing for 1,206 more yards (6.9 average) and seven more touchdowns.

• But for all that Jackson did in getting his team to the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, his performances in the postseason have been decidedly underwhelming. In two playoff games, both of which were losses – in 2018 to the Chargers and in 2019 to the Titans – Jackson completed a combined 51.1 percent of his passes for three touchdowns, three interceptions, and a rating of 68.3. In addition, while he rushed for 197 yards in those two games, he also lost two fumbles.

• As Jackson continues his NFL career, it's going to be interesting to see how NFL opponents adapt their defenses in an effort to neutralize him, plus how NFL officials treat him when he tucks the ball and runs out of the protective cocoon of the pocket.

• The way the game is legislated, protections to the quarterback only are afforded when he is in the pocket and in the process of looking for and then delivering the ball to an eligible receiver. If he is acting as a running back behind the line of scrimmage, or if he leaves the pocket and becomes a runner, he becomes fair game for the defense. Then it could become a question of how much punishment Jackson's 212-pound body can withstand before his skills begin to erode.

• But whatever the outcome of the questions/issues attached to the future of these three Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks, one thing that doesn't appear to be in doubt is that the statue they were handed during a ceremony in New York City isn't going to be a help to them at all in the NFL.

• Consider: The first Super Bowl was played following the 1966 NFL season, and in the 55 college football seasons since then there have been 28 quarterbacks who won the Heisman Trophy.

• Here is that list, in chronological order: Steve Spurrier, Gary Beban, Jim Plunkett, Pat Sullivan, Doug Flutie, Vinny Testaverde, Andre Ware, Ty Detmer, Gino Torretta, Charlie Ward, Danny Wuerffel, Chris Weinke, Eric Crouch, Carson Palmer, Jason White, Matt Leinart, Troy Smith, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Jackson, Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Burrow.

• Understanding that some of the recent Heisman winners haven't had much, if any, time to win a Super Bowl, but from those 28, there is precisely ONE Heisman Trophy winning quarterback to go on to win a Super Bowl as a starter – Jim Plunkett, who won two with the Raiders.

• So a coach being wary of a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback on the opposing team might make for a good topic during the week of preparation and even serve as motivation for his defense, but history indicates that mostly has turned out to be wasted worrying.

• It was Aug. 12, 2018, and the Steelers were maybe 48 hours away from escaping Saint Vincent College in Latrobe to conclude that year's training camp before moving their base of operations for the remainder of the preseason to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex in Pittsburgh. Early in the afternoon, a car driven by one of the interns in the team's scouting department arrived on campus and came to a stop outside the Carey Student Center, which contains the locker rooms the Steelers use during training camp each summer.

• Riding with the scouting intern was Zach Banner, a very large human being who not long before that had been deemed too large to play professional football and as a result was without a job in the NFL. But since the Steelers were running low on healthy offensive linemen and needed bodies to complete the final two games on their preseason schedule, Banner was about to be signed, presumably as a camp body.

• That was the assumption anyway, maybe even by the Steelers, too, because Banner might have been a fourth-round draft pick a couple of teams ago, but he never really kept himself in good enough shape to be able to showcase why. And as Jerry Glanville always said about the league that employed him, "This is the N-F-L, and that stand for not-for-long."

• Based on Banner's recent history, combined with the state of the Steelers' depth chart and the fact he was joining the team at such a late stage of the process – cuts were due in a couple of weeks – his chances to last very long seemed to be comparable to the chances of an ice cube surviving the afternoon sun that was going to be beating down on the players during the upcoming practice that would begin in a few hours.

• But Banner did survive. He arrived in sufficient physical shape to complete that practice, and as he continued to improve his conditioning the coaching staff began to see why he was a fourth-round draft pick. Banner was a very large man with good feet and decent hands, and as the Steelers worked with him on a daily basis they soon came to believe he had a chance. A chance to make the roster, sure, but also a chance to become a contributing player who belonged in the league.

• The same guy who seemed to be the longest of longshots a couple of years ago is set to earn $1.75 million for the 2020 season, which will be his third with the Steelers, but more important than that this longest of longshots has worked himself into a spot where he'll go to training camp at Heinz Field in a competition for a starting job.

• Tomlin has said the offense will begin with Matt Feiler moving from right tackle to left guard to replace the retired Ramon Foster, which means Chuks Okorafor and Banner will compete for Feiler's old job. And at this point, it seems as though the worst case scenario for Banner is that he ends up spending the 2020 season as Al Villanueva's backup at left tackle and the likely filler of the role as an extra tight end in the team's "Jumbo" personnel grouping.

• In August 2018, Banner's chances of being where he is today seemed to be no better than a snowball's chance in Latrobe.

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