Labriola On

Labriola on the luck of the NFL Draft

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Luck.

• When it comes to the annual NFL Draft, there is no more important element for a team than luck. After all the video has been studied, and the interviews done, and the backgrounds checked, and the medical exams completed, and the grades awarded, and the board arranged, a team knows that even if all of their information is complete and correct, it's going to have to be lucky enough to have its targeted player available when its turn comes.

• And sure, the availability issue can be mitigated by trading into a position to select said targeted player, but then the luck factor enters into it by being able to find a trading partner willing to do business in a reasonable fashion.

• The Steelers have been impacted by luck, both good and bad, during their many forays into what the NFL used to call the Annual Player Selection Meeting, and the 2020 installment that begins next Thursday will be the 85th time they will have rolled the dice and made their picks. The most famous modern-era example of luck playing a significant role in a Steelers draft was in 1970.

• Back then, coin flips were what decided the drafting order between teams that had finished the previous season with the same record, and so it was that in 1969 both the Steelers and the Chicago Bears finished 1-13. Art Rooney Sr., who was known to bankrupt bookies at racetracks during the 1930s with his astute handicapping skills, told his son, Dan, to let the Bears call the toss because that would shift all of the pressure onto them. It worked, and the Steelers won the toss, or more accurately the Bears lost the toss, and Rooney's team won the right to select Louisiana Tech quarterback Terry Bradshaw No. 1 overall.

• What follows is a recounting of four other instances when luck intervened for the Steelers during the NFL Draft and therefore had an impact on the immediate fortunes of the team. Those instances are listed chronologically:

1974: STALLWORTH LASTS UNTIL ROUND 4
• In the run-up to the 1974 NFL Draft, the Steelers were known to be looking at wide receivers, and Coach Chuck Noll was known within the organization to like Alabama A&M's John Stallworth more than any of the others in this class. As a result, Noll was in favor of using the team's No. 1 pick – the 21st overall – on Stallworth.

• But the Steelers also liked Lynn Swann, and because Swann had played his college football in the national spotlight that went with being at Southern California, Noll had to be convinced that the picking had to go in a specific order for the Steelers to come away with both players. Noll understood the rationale, agreed, and Swann became the team's No. 1 pick.

• About a year earlier, the Steelers had been in need of help along the defensive line, and so they traded for veteran Tom Keating. In exchange, Noll agreed to send a third-round pick in the following year's draft to Oakland for a 31-year old one-year rental who would start four games and appear in 12 for a Steelers team that lost in the first round of the AFC Playoffs, ironically, to the Raiders.

• Now as the 1974 NFL Draft was underway, Noll was unhappy with having agreed to that trade, because he cherished draft picks and was philosophically opposed to the idea of trading what he viewed as his team's future for a quick fix in the present. And so as the second round of the 1974 draft began, Noll was unhappy about not having a third-round pick and more than unhappy at what that might do to his desire to pick Stallworth.

• Picking wide receivers one-two in a draft today would be viewed skeptically even with the rules as they are, and doing that in 1974 when offenses still ran the football on most first and second downs would've been seen as insanity. And besides, the Steelers had their eye on a skinny linebacker from Kent State named Jack Lambert.

• Noll still wanted Stallworth, though, and as the Steelers got down to making their second-round pick, his anxiety over the possibility of losing out on Stallworth had him turn to Bill Nunn and say, "Can you promise me (Stallworth) will still be there in the fourth round?"

• When recounting the story, Nunn told me that he had no idea, no way of ensuring that Stallworth would still be on the board when the Steelers' turn in the fourth round came up, but he also understood that Noll wanted reassurance, even if it wasn't based on fact. So Nunn, who was the only scout to have re-timed Stallworth in the 40-yard dash after his previous bad time on a wet field, the scout who was given Alabama A&M's only copy of Stallworth's game film from his senior season, the scout the Steelers trusted implicitly with all things having to do with HBCUs, told Noll what he wanted to hear.

• Successfully reassured, Noll agreed to Lambert being the second-round pick, and then the Steelers whole draft room, Nunn and Noll in particular, sweated through the next 35 picks until they were able to use their first of two fourth-round picks to secure Stallworth.

• Despite all of the work Nunn had done and the relationships he tapped, the Steelers getting John Stallworth in the fourth round of the 1974 NFL Draft came down to luck, pure and simple. And Noll's vow never to put the team in the same position, that position being without a future draft pick because of a present trade, would have a tangible impact 11 years later.

1985: WHEN IT COMES TO THE DRAFT, 'ALMOST' DOESN'T COUNT
• Eleven years later, the Steelers were coming off an appearance in the AFC Championship Game, but anyone who watched them get dissected by Dan Marino and the Miami passing attack could not have had any illusions that they were a team on the cusp of returning to the greatness of the 1970s.

• Going into the 1985 NFL Draft, the Steelers needed a better defense to be sure, but losing to the Dolphins in the way they did also made it clear their offense would need more firepower to keep up in the AFC.

• There were two other things at play that season, and neither of them was a good sign for the Steelers as they got closer and closer to the first round of this draft. The first was that just about all of the other teams in the league had come to the realization that it was foolish to give short shrift to the HBCU football programs, which meant that the distinct advantage the Steelers had with these programs during the 1970s had all but vanished. Sure, Nunn still was a respected, almost revered figure by the coaches and players for the doors he had opened for them, but other teams were committing a lot more energy and resources to scouting programs they previously had ignored.

• And the other issue was that Chuck Noll had not softened at all, not one bit, in his belief that it was foolish to trade away draft picks, for any and all reasons.

• As the Steelers had done their preparation for this draft and graded the players, there was a guy who caught their fancy, a player Nunn found and Noll had come to love. He was a wide receiver from Mississippi Valley State named Jerry Rice.

• Even though the Steelers had advanced to the previous season's AFC Championship Game, the following year's draft order was determined solely by regular season record. So at 9-7 in 1984, the Steelers had the 20th overall pick on the first round, which as the date of the draft drew closer seemed to be a safe enough spot to get done what they wanted to get done.

• That was because Rice wasn't viewed as a sure thing coming out of college. First of all, the level of competition on Mississippi Valley State's schedule was an issue with some NFL teams, and the fact Rice had run in the high-4.5s-to-low-4.6s in the 40-yard dash wasn't overly impressive, certainly not impressive enough to convince teams to ignore a 66-19 loss to Louisiana Tech in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.

• Neither Noll nor Nunn ever was overly enamored with timed speed, and they both were convinced Rice's competitive speed was good enough for the NFL, and the professional game still largely was about running the football on offense and stopping the run on defense. Besides, in the five drafts from 1980-84, 11 wide receivers had been selected in the first round, an average of 2.2 per year, and each of those players had some combination of difference-making speed and a major college pedigree.

• It isn't known whether the Steelers had any inkling that Rice was on anyone else's radar, and it wouldn't have mattered if they did because Noll was not going to be on board with giving up a pick, and certainly not two, to move up in a round to select one individual. To him, draft picks were just too valuable to give away, and he had won four Super Bowls during a six-season span of the 1970s with teams that were built primarily through astute usage of those draft picks.

• But the 49ers were less risk-averse, and they found New England was willing to trade its first-round pick – the 16th overall – for San Francisco's No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the 1985 draft. The 49ers then used that pick to add Jerry Rice to a team that would win three Super Bowls over the next 10 seasons. In that particular two-team race, the Steelers had ALMOST won.

1987: NOLL TO DUNGY: 'DON'T EVEN BOTHER …'
• Following the 1986 season, the Steelers were in desperate need of defensive backs, and this was emphasized by opponents having combined for 6,113 passing yards and 40 passing touchdowns over the previous two seasons, during which the Steelers were 13-19. Based on their 6-10 record in 1986, the Steelers would have the 10th overall selection in the 1987 NFL Draft.

• There was little argument that the best defensive back prospect in this draft was Purdue's Rod Woodson. He was so good, so much better than anyone else, that when the Steelers were organizing their pre-draft scouting schedule Noll told defensive coordinator Tony Dungy not to waste his time going to see Woodson in West Lafayette, Indiana. Even though the Steelers had a top 10 pick, Noll was certain he would have no shot to pick Woodson. Absolutely certain.

• But on the day of the draft, the Steelers got lucky, and the reasons for their luck came down to mistakes made by Cleveland and St. Louis, plus an either-or decision by Buffalo that landed the Bills the eventual 1987 Defensive Rookie of the Year while securing a Hall of Fame cornerback for the Steelers.

• Here's how it unfolded:

• The first four picks went as expected, even though in retrospect, two of the four were questionable and turned out to be busts. Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde went first to Tampa Bay, the Colts followed by taking Alabama outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett, the Oilers chose Miami fullback Alonzo Highsmith, and the Packers picked Auburn tailback Brent Fullwood.

• Highsmith's NFL career was sabotaged by injuries, Fullwood didn't have the requisite toughness and desire to be great, and both were out of the league five years after being drafted. But as bad as those picks were, they still were expected. But the Browns made a shocking move that ended up bringing Woodson one step closer to the Steelers.

• Finally tired of Pro Bowl linebacker Chip Banks' constant demands to renegotiate his contract for more money, the Browns traded him to San Diego on the day of the first round of the 1987 Draft, and in exchange Cleveland received the Chargers' No. 1 pick, which was the fifth overall. For whatever reason, the Browns decided they had to use that specific pick to replace Banks, and so General Manager Ernie Accorsi and Coach Marty Schottenheimer decided on Duke linebacker Mike Junkin.

• The reaction to that pick today is the same as it was back in 1987: Who? Why?

• Before the laughter over the Browns' pick of Junkin had time to subside, the St. Louis Cardinals stepped up and did a very St. Louis Cardinals thing: they picked Colorado State quarterback Kelly Stouffer.

• While Junkin's first two NFL seasons ended prematurely because of injuries and he was out of the league after his third season, Stouffer never played a down with the Cardinals because he held out throughout his rookie year and then his rights were traded to Seattle prior to the 1988 draft for three picks. In four seasons with Seattle, Stouffer completed 225-for-437 (51.5 percent) for 2,333 yards, with seven touchdowns, 19 interceptions, and a rating of 54.5. B-U-S-T.

• But once the Cardinals chose Stouffer, the draft was back on track with Detroit doing the expected and picking defensive end Reggie Rogers at No. 7. The Eagles, with the ninth overall pick, were known to covet Miami defensive tackle Jerome Brown, and so all that stood between the Steelers and the impossible dream of landing Woodson were the Buffalo Bills.

• In one way, the Steelers couldn't lose, because there were two prime defensive players the Bills would choose between, and the Steelers were going to get the other. When Buffalo decided on Penn State linebacker Shane Conlan, it was simply a formality until Woodson's rights would be owned by the Steelers.

• When Noll was brought down the hall to meet the media after the Steelers picked Woodson, the first question to him was something along the lines of, "What do you think of your first-round pick?"

• A beaming Noll replied, "I'm in love with him."

2004: NOT SO FAST WITH THAT O-LINEMAN
• This class included three quarterbacks – Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger – who were consensus first-round picks, with Manning perceived during the run-up to be the most NFL ready. The Steelers owned the 11th overall pick and knew they had no hope of having a chance to select Manning, and after watching Roethlisberger's college video that showcased his size, strength, and rocket throwing arm, they had their doubts about his availability to them, too. The one Coach Bill Cowher really liked was Rivers.

• Within the first four picks, Manning and Rivers were off the board, and through the first five selections there were no surprises. But that changed with pick No. 6 overall.

• The No. 6 overall pick originally was the property of Detroit, but the Browns traded up from No. 7 overall to No. 6 overall, and when the trade was announced most football people believed it was done in order to pick the quarterback from Findlay, Ohio, who played his college football in-state in Oxford for Miami (Ohio). But instead of Roethlisberger, the Browns selected tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. Before the laughter over that move even had a chance to die down, Matt Millen used the seventh overall pick on wide receiver Roy Williams.

• At that point, there still were three picks between the Steelers and the chance to land Roethlisberger, but two of the three teams above them were known to be looking at cornerbacks. Atlanta had been linked to DeAngelo Hall and Houston had been linked to Dunta Robinson. Regardless, neither team was going to pick a quarterback, because the Falcons (eighth overall) had Michael Vick and the Texans (10th overall) had used the first pick in franchise history just two years earlier on David Carr.

• What all that appeared to mean was the only team standing between the Steelers and Roethlisberger was Jacksonville. But this was a different era than when the Steelers were waiting to pick Stallworth, and in 2004 teams had no aversion to trading up in a round to get a targeted prospect.

• That team turned out to be the Buffalo Bills, who were desperate enough for a quarterback and so enamored with Roethlisberger that they contacted the Jaguars and set out to make Jacksonville an offer for the ninth overall pick it couldn't refuse.

• But the Jaguars, then coached by Jack Del Rio and with James Harris as the head of Player Personnel, refused anyway, because they believed they had to stay at ninth overall to get the guy they wanted, who turned out to be wide receiver Reggie Williams from the University of Washington. As it turned out, the Jaguars were wrong.

• They were wrong that they had to take Williams so high, and they were wrong that he was worthy of being a No. 1 pick, let alone a top 10 No. 1 pick. At 6-foot-3, 233 pounds, Williams may have cut a dashing figure in his uniform, but he was out of the league five years later after catching 189 passes for 2,322 yards and 18 touchdowns in 79 career games. Yes, out of the league in five years, which is the same time span it took for Roethlisberger to help the Steelers win two Super Bowls.

• So after the Jaguars rebuffed the Bills' overtures, and the Texans did their thing, the Steelers were on the clock, but not out of the woods yet. Coach Bill Cowher liked/wanted Shawn Andrews, an offensive lineman from Arkansas. But thankfully, Dan Rooney dialed back the urgency to pick a guy who ended up playing guard and re-ignited the conversation about the strong-armed quarterback who was sitting so high on their draft board.

• And it's a good thing Rooney did, because Andrews was out of the league following the 2010 season, and that same 2004-10 timeframe had Roethlisberger quarterback the Steelers to three Super Bowl appearances.

• The 2020 NFL Draft will begin in six days, on Thursday, April 23, and having traded their first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers will not join the festivities until one week from today. And when they ultimately do get to work making their picks, they will need to be lucky as well as good.

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