Labriola on Ike, 'big boards,' hearts & smarts

INDIANAPOLIS – Ready or not, here it comes:

• If your question happens to be, "Why Ike Hilliard?"

• I would contend that a significant part of the answer is, "Terry McLaurin."

• It was on Feb. 18 that Coach Mike Tomlin filled the final vacancy on his staff when he hired Ike Hilliard as the wide receivers coach to fill a spot initially created by the untimely passing of Darryl Drake last August while the team was in the midst of training camp at Saint Vincent College. Ray Sherman, who had been retired for three-plus years from the NFL after 27 seasons as an assistant coach and coordinator and had been attending camp as a visitor, stepped in and served as the interim wide receivers coach for the rest of the 2019 season.

• There were reports the Steelers had hired South Carolina wide receivers coach Bryan McClendon, and that Tomlin also was interviewing Jerricho Cotchery – and of course a faction of Steelers Nation was promoting the candidacy of Hines Ward – but ultimately the job went to Hilliard.

• Before accepting Tomlin's offer, Hilliard had spent nine years in the NFL as a wide receivers coach, with his most recent stop being with the Washington Redskins, where he had worked for the last six seasons. And during his time there, Hilliard consistently did a decent job in getting young receivers to be productive while not always working with a top-tier quarterback.

• In 2019, that young wide receiver was Terry McLaurin.

• A third-round pick, 76th overall, from Ohio State, McLaurin led the Redskins in three major receiving categories: 58 catches, 919 receiving yards, seven receiving touchdowns. Among all NFL rookies, McLaurin's 15.8 average per catch was second among receivers with at least 20 receptions. And it's also fair to point out that McLaurin's quarterbacks were Case Keenum (eight starts), rookie Dwayne Haskins (seven starts), and Colt McCoy (one start).

• Hilliard had to work with young receivers through much of his time with the Redskins, and they generally were productive while working with quarterbacks who were more apt to be highly paid (Kirk Cousins, Keenum) or highly drafted (Haskins) than they were to be highly accomplished during the time they were throwing to the receivers Hilliard was charged to coach. And now he's coming to a Steelers team, where the top of the depth chart at wide receiver includes a 62nd overall pick in JuJu Smith-Schuster who's 23 years old, a 60th overall pick in James Washington who's 23 years old, and a 66th overall draft pick in Diontae Johnson who's 23 years old.

• That's why Ike Hilliard.

IS PAY FOR PLAY COMING?

• The NFL has switched to an all-primetime schedule to televise the workouts here at the Combine, and not only will the action take place at night to maximize the number of people who tune in, but most of the higher-profile positions and the positions containing the higher-profile players will do their thing in the latter portion of the week.

• For example, the primetime coverage of the Combine began last night, with seven hours of coverage of the quarterbacks, tight ends, and wide receivers. Tonight, the coverage will be on the offensive linemen, running backs, and special teams. Defensive linemen and linebackers will work on Saturday starting at 4 p.m., and then on Sunday it will be the defensive backs starting at 2 p.m.

• Notice how the Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday times mirror the times when NFL regular season and/or playoff games typically are telecast. And what's next presumably is moving the Combine from Indianapolis to California and into the as-yet-to-be-opened Los Angeles Stadium. That could mean more money, maybe from ticket sales to watch the event live, and because of the time difference involved in the event being on the West Coast, the actual drills would be ending in the middle of the evening for the participants.

• But do the participants end up wanting some compensation for their role in what might become a highly lucrative endeavor? Five-to-10 years from now when the event is settled into Los Angeles and the stadium there is filled, and the hotels and businesses around the stadium are bustling and the television numbers are soaring, do the actual performers seek a piece of the action? And do they withhold their services if they don't get it? Does everybody get an equal share, or does it become a truly American enterprise where the stars get preferential treatment?

• Maybe it never comes to that level of greed and commercialism, but would anyone actually be surprised if it did?

BIG BOARD'S BIG MYTH

• Based on what happens at this Combine, "draft experts" will follow up with changes to their mock drafts – Sports Illustrated's online editions already have offered its readers eight different versions of a mock draft before the first 40-yard dash was run inside Lucas Oil Stadium – and the changes to those mocks will be attributed to players making big moves up or down "the Big Board."

• Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert called "BS" on big moves on the Big Board, but in a professional way.

• "What gets talked about externally, it's not the same conversation that's going on internally," said Colbert about players allegedly rising dramatically or falling drastically at this stage of the process. "There's a lot of things that may not be accurate that get thrown out (into the public), quite honestly, and we know what the strength is right now. That can change and it will change tomorrow, tonight, whenever, so we'll continue to evolve with it. When you see people (moving) up on draft boards, none of that really ever happens. It's pretty set right now, and it'll move a little bit but not drastically."

So just because a mock draft's changes are attributed to a player's big move up or down the "big board" doesn't mean that's actually what happened. It often just means the author has decided to guess in a different direction.

HEARTS AND SMARTS

• Colbert consistently says that the most difficult part of the evaluation of a draft eligible prospect has nothing to do with his physical skills, but rather in the area of hearts and smarts. As in, how badly does the player want to succeed, and does he have the heart to do what's going to be necessary to achieve greatness. And his intelligence, not only for football but also for the being able to handle the life demands of being a professional athlete.

• That's why the Steelers are intrigued by players who have a family history in the business of professional football. T.J. Watt, whose brother is a multiple time Defensive Player of the Year; and Terrell Edmunds and Devin Bush, whose fathers were NFL players.

• "It's a little bit of (advance) knowledge of their family," said Colbert. "It doesn't mean that Player A is going to be the same as Player B, but when they're coming from the same background they probably have the same type of makeup. And if you like that makeup in the past, maybe that's something you're looking forward to in the future.

• "With the Edmunds family, I was part of the Dolphins staff that drafted his father, Ferrell, so I've known his Dad since the late 1980s. With the Wattses, how we envisioned J.J. and where he was coming from, that had something to do with our evaluation of T.J. because it's the same thing. Devin Bush was a similar situation. We never had his father, but we knew who his father was and we knew who his father is, and so you get some comfort in knowing the family background and family history.

• "Does that mean they're going to be as good? We don't base it on the physical stuff, but it's more the family makeup and that type of feel coming forward."

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