Labriola On

Labriola on instant draft grades, remaking the LBs

Ready or not, here it comes:

• We begin today with something that belongs on the list of Top 10 Colossal Wastes of Time, Sports Division – that being grading a team’s draft class before any of the players who were picked have been fitted for a helmet.

• Grading a draft class hours after the selections have been completed is a colossal waste of time for those who choose to read it, just as it is a colossal waste of time for those attempting to write it. In fact, it’s such a waste of time and such a meaningless exercise that USA Today’s Nate Davis began his version with the following disclaimer:

• “PSA – this is a largely pointless drill, and a legitimate report card can’t be fairly issued until 2022. But I’ll play along and submit my annual, way-too-early, impromptu evaluations before all of these players have even set foot onto a pro practice field …”

• And just as an exclamation point in my ongoing crusade to shine a light on the practice of immediately slapping a grade on a team’s draft class as a fool’s errand most often attempted by fools, I offer the following passage that appeared in the Jan. 30, 1974 editions of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. As a final bit of context, Jan. 29, 1974 was the date the NFL conducted the first five rounds of the 17-round 1974 NFL Draft.

• “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.”

• The author of that drivel will remain anonymous, or at least won’t be outed by me in this space, but recapping the Steelers’ haul over the first five rounds of the 1974 NFL Draft: Lynn Swann in the first round; Jack Lambert in the second round; no pick in the third round because of a 1973 trade with Oakland for veteran defensive tackle Tom Keating; John Stallworth with their first of two picks in the fourth round; Jimmy Allen with their second of two picks in the fourth round; and Mike Webster in the fifth round.

• Five players. Four members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Eighteen combined Super Bowl rings. No tight ends or punters, though.

• Once Mike Tomlin was hired on Jan. 22, 2007, and some time after he had decided to retain coordinator Dick LeBeau and the rest of the defensive assistant coaches, one of the first things he did to improve that unit was re-make the corps of linebackers. James Harrison was made a starter at the right outside linebacker spot, and then Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley were the first two picks of his inaugural draft in his new job.

• It’s not difficult to paint those moves as highly successful, because during a five-season span from 2007-11, Harrison had 54 sacks and 27 forced fumbles, and Woodley contributed 48 sacks and eight fumble recoveries, while Timmons injected an element of speed at inside linebacker that made him a player opponents had to account for on every snap.

• Maybe that’s what we’re seeing this offseason as well, with only a different purpose in mind. Twelve years ago, the intent was to re-energize the outside pass rush that was so integral to the success of the fire-zone scheme, and this time the goal is to continue to evolve and adapt to the way offenses now attack defenses at the NFL level.

• Over the last couple of months, the Steelers have signed Mark Barron as an unrestricted free agent, and then drafted Devin Bush on the first round, Sutton Smith with their first pick in the sixth round, and Ulysees Gilbert with their third pick of the sixth round.

• The purpose of these moves was to improve the speed and athleticism of the defense in the middle of its second level, and the assumed trickle-down effect of having more speed at the linebacker level – particularly at the inside linebacker spot – will mean having more options when the opponent has a sufficient number of offensive weapons and is capable of deploying them in ways that can force uncomfortable matchups for the defense.

• One notable example of this occurring last season was in the game against the Los Angeles Chargers, when because of some injuries the Steelers found themselves in a situation where L.J. Fort was matched up in coverage vs. Keenan Allen, and the outcomes of those matchups – with Philip Rivers as the quarterback – went the way one would’ve anticipated.

• “Sometimes you have to use the art of deception, particularly when you’re minus a few weapons. That’s what you do when you’re down some people – you bogus pressure, you play zones, you play some man, you mix things up,” said Coach Mike Tomlin about those situations in that game. “We knew going into the game we were going to be down a couple of sub-package players, and that could make things potentially difficult if they put athletes inside, particularly on possession downs. So, sometimes those adjustments, the art of deception, the smoke-and-mirrors only lasts a set amount of time, particularly when you have a veteran quarterback like Philip Rivers. You only get so many snaps from him looking at it from an in-helmet perspective. That’s the chess match, when you have to make calculated decisions with the pieces at your disposal.”

• The idea behind the recent offseason moves the Steelers made to re-shape their linebacker unit were designed to give them more options, and better options, the next time an opponent tried to use a personnel grouping to create a matchup it could exploit.

• The primary pieces of this plan obviously are Mark Barron and Devin Bush, with Barron’s general experience as an NFL player and also his specific experience as a hybrid linebacker for the Rams making him the top candidate to be an immediate contributor. Bush figures to need some time to adjust to the game as it’s played at the professional level, but he possesses enough Shazier-like qualities to allow him to become the kind of defensive playmaker the Steelers desperately need in the middle of the field.

• The interesting guys, possibly the bonus guys, are Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert. Both were playmakers in college, Smith at Northern Illinois and Gilbert at Akron, and while it’s understood they both will need time to adjust to the NFL, it’s also fair to point out the Steelers will need time to figure out how to take advantage of their respective skill-sets.

• Taking a stab in the dark at this, Smith will try to figure out the NFL game while getting after the opposing quarterback, with 15 sacks in 2018 – including two in the MAC Championship Game – jumping off his resume as an indicator he might be able to make the transition to a rush-cover outside linebacker who could keep the opposition guessing by becoming equally adept at both.

• Gilbert is a player who comes bearing the promise of giving the defense a guy who could contribute as a multi-faceted sub-package inside linebacker, but also a guy comfortable being deployed to the flanks of the offensive formation from where the pass-receiving running backs and athletic tight ends typically operate. Like Smith, and even like Bush right off the bat, Gilbert will need some time and seasoning to have a realistic shot at developing into what the Steelers hope he can become.

• But the intent was clear – the Steelers weren’t interested in finding themselves in the same situation as they were against the Chargers last December, that being short-handed in the types of athletes now necessary to counter an offense loaded with playmakers and quarterbacked by a potential Hall of Famer.

• In the 2007 NFL Draft, the Steelers re-made their linebackers to make their 3-4 fire-zone scheme something that opponents would come to fear. In this 2019 NFL Draft, they attempted to re-make their linebackers into a group capable of dealing with the way offenses are evolving, while adding some teeth to a defense that was too often toothless in critical moments against top competition last season.

• But alas, no tight ends or punters.