Labriola On

Labriola on No. 1 pick RBs, Brady, Berry

Ready or not, here it comes:

Historically, the Steelers franchise has been one that has enjoyed a good amount of success running the football, with the exception of 2020, of course, when they finished last in the NFL in that phase of the game.

Maybe because that was so unusual is the reason why the Steelers reacted to it so definitively. They re-tooled their offensive line to the extent the only full-time starter back from the 2020 season is Chuck Okorafor, and they spent the 24th overall pick of the draft on the No. 1 running back prospect: Najee Harris.

Harris was the first running back picked in that draft; he was installed with the first unit on offense his first day in a Steelers helmet this offseason and has been there ever since. Through every day of OTAs, minicamp, and training camp. For each of the first three preseason games, and then he was treated as a No. 1 running back for the preseason finale by Coach Mike Tomlin by getting the evening off. To no one's surprise, Harris will start for the Steelers in their regular season opener in Buffalo against the Bills.

There is a lot of anticipation about the potential positive impact Harris can have on the Steelers running attack this season, but in terms of performances by running backs drafted No. 1 by the Steelers in the regular season opener of their rookie seasons, the bar has not been set very high.

In fact, you'd have to go back to World War II to find an instance of a first-round rookie running back who gave even a hint that he was going to be what the Steelers hoped he would be when they spent that high draft pick in the first place.

• Franco Harris is in the argument as the best running back in franchise history. He's the guy who did for the offense in the 1970s what Joe Greene did for the defense. He retired second on the NFL's all-time rushing list; he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility; he owns four Super Bowl rings; and he was MVP of Super Bowl IX, which was the first championship in franchise history. In the opener of his rookie season in 1972, a 34-28 victory over Oakland, Harris gained 28 yards on 10 carries.

• Moving forward chronologically, the next time the Steelers spent a No. 1 pick on a running back was in 1979, and his name was Greg Hawthorne. It was apparent immediately that this was not nearly as successful a pick as the one the Steelers spent on Harris, because Hawthorne didn't play in the regular season opener of his rookie year for a team that would go on to win its fourth Super Bowl in a six-season span. In the second game of the 1979 season, Hawthorne carried three times for 9 yards and scored a touchdown.

• Three drafts later, the Steelers were at it again, because Hawthorne was injury-prone and Harris was nearing the end of his career, and their No. 1 pick in 1982 was Baylor's Walter Abercrombie. It was another inauspicious debut. Abercrombie didn't get a carry in either of the season's first two games, then came a seven-week players' strike, and then two weeks after that was settled – on Nov. 28 – Abercrombie had one carry for 1 yard in a 16-0 loss in Seattle.

• In 1989, the Steelers had two first-round picks, with the second coming as a result of a trade of Mike Merriweather to Minnesota. They used the first of those – seventh overall – on Georgia's Tim Worley. In the 1989 regular season opener, a 51-0 loss to the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium, Worley had 36 yards on 10 carries, probably the only time he ever out-performed Harris in a game.

• Maybe it was because of this run of bad running backs picked in the first round that sent the Steelers looking for help at this position via the trade market. They hit the jackpot in 1996 when they acquired Jerome Bettis from the St. Louis Rams, but three drafts after Bettis retired with a Lombardi Trophy in his hands, the Steelers spent a No. 1 pick on Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois. Mendenhall posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the Steelers in 2009-10, but in the opener of his rookie season – a 38-17 win over Houston – he finished with 28 yards on 10 carries.

• Flipping things around, and going back in franchise history, to the period between the first NFL season conducted after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the selection of Franco Harris in 1972, the Steelers used a bunch of No. 1 picks on running backs, and for a variety of reasons, they came up empty every time but once.

• Dick Leftridge, Bob Ferguson, Jack Spikes, Johnny Lattner, Ed Modzelewski, Butch Avinger, Lynn Chandnois. None of them made the kind of impact as runners of the football that would have justified their selections as first-round picks. Some contributed at other positions, but most were typical of the caliber of the draft picks the Steelers were making during that era.

• The exception was Bill Dudley, the team's No. 1 pick in 1942. The 1942 NFL Draft was conducted on Dec. 22, 1941, just 15 days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into World War II.

• Anyway, the Steelers opener of the 1942 NFL season was Sept. 13, and the opponent was the Philadelphia Eagles. In that 24-14 Steelers loss, rookie back Bill Dudley rushed for 107 yards and scored the game's first touchdown on a 44-yard run. The number of times Dudley carried to amass those yards are unknown; such was the state of recording individual statistics in those days.

So that's the number for Najee Harris. One hundred and seven yards rushing, and if he gets to 108, he will have posted the most successful opener for a rookie No. 1 pick for the Steelers in 79 years. No pressure.

PENEI FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
He was the first sophomore offensive lineman ever to win the Outland Trophy, given annually to the best interior offensive lineman in college football. A consensus first-round draft pick. The seventh overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. And the first offensive lineman off the board.

Penei Sewell was all of those things. Today he's just another NFL rookie struggling to make the jump to the NFL.

According to si.com, in his transition to playing right tackle, Sewell allowed four pressures and a sack on 37 pass blocks in the Lions' three preseason games.

"I think the more that he gets, the better it is for him," Coach Dan Campbell said following the Lions' loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field. "I bring this up, he got beat a few times, but yet, I'm not discouraged, and neither should he be. The important thing is that he learns from that. Every time he gets a fastball from a dang good rusher like Melvin Ingram – when Melvin wants to turn it up, which he did, he can still bring it. He can throw the fastballs. Those are so beneficial for Sewell to see and learn from and adjust. I'm encouraged."

Let this serve as a reminder to the chorus of analytics geeks who believe all picks of a running back in the first round are a mistake, that a pick of an offensive lineman was safer and would have made more sense. Heading into the 2021 NFL Draft, Sewell generally was considered the top prospect at offensive tackle, just as Najee Harris was considered the top prospect at running back.

Sewell very well could go on to have a great NFL career, but right now he's just another example that when it comes to drafting: It's the who, not the what.

ENEMY TO FRIEND?
Through most of his professional life, Tom Brady has been the bane of every defensive player on every opposing team he has faced during his 21 seasons – and counting – in the National Football League. But earlier this year, the man who helped make "the tuck rule" famous and has won more Super Bowls than any player in history, spoke out in defense of defensive players.

To summarize, in a discussion posted on buccaneers.com, Brady said he believes that many of the penalties currently being assessed to defensive players actually result from mistakes made by offensive players.

"A quarterback should only throw the ball to certain places, because your receiver is in danger of getting hit," said Brady. "For example, when I used to play against Ray Lewis, I wouldn't throw the ball to the middle of the field because he would … hit them and knock them out of the game. And now, every hard hit is a penalty on the defense. So, I feel like they penalize defensive players for offensive mistakes."

Brady even came to the defense of pass rushers, players who are sworn to making his on-field life as miserable as possible.

"The quarterback messes up, doesn't see the blitzer, or the line screws up," said Brady. "I don't know what happened, the quarterback or the lineman on offense. The defensive player comes in and hits him hard, and they throw a flag on the defense.

"It shouldn't be the responsibility of your opponent to protect you."

"It creates really bad habits for players, because you feel like I can basically do anything," Brady said. "I can run and not slide. I can throw my receiver into any coverage and not have any repercussion for it. The only thing they're gonna do, they're actually gonna blame the defensive player for making a good, solid hit."

PAYING IT FORWARD
Born and raised in Essendon, Victoria, Australia, Jordan Berry may have lacked an inherent understanding of American football when he began playing the sport full-time at Eastern Kentucky. But by the time he had spent six seasons in the NFL as the Steelers' punter he had developed a very good understanding of what it meant to be a teammate.

At the end of the summer in 2020, the Steelers released Berry and signed Dustin Colquitt in what turned out to be a misguided attempt to improve their punting. Colquitt was a failure, and the team ended up re-signing Berry, who then returned to the team and put together the best season of his NFL career.

The Steelers doubled-down on replacing Berry when they used one of their seventh-round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft on Pressley Harvin III, but Berry would not go quietly. The competition was a lot closer than many suspected, but in the end Harvin was better and younger, and Berry was released on Aug. 31 when teams had to reduce their rosters to 53 players.

"It was tight. It really was," said special teams coordinator Danny Smith about the competition between Berry and Harvin. "I was really proud of those two guys. Jordan Berry is a real pro. I'm not here to build him up or anything like that, but he punted better than he ever has. He really did, in practice as well. It was a real battle. Pressley handled it really well and met challenges. Jordan was a real pro, and even though I knew that and thought that about him, he went above and beyond. He helped that young kid; he was a real teammate."

Harvin expressed a similar sentiment about Berry, and his experience with him seems as though it will have a lasting impact on how he might conduct himself should a rookie ever be brought in to compete for his job.

"Jordan has my utmost respect, because he was by far the biggest help I've had in my career since I started punted, in my honest opinion," said Harvin. "Not to bash my coaches or anything, because they've been a big help, too, but to be on this stage and having someone trying to help instead of being in here by yourself every day trying to do it (alone) is a big difference. I have the utmost respect for Berry. He's really a good guy, and I still talk to him to this day. I got love for him."

Advertising