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Labriola On

Labriola on the Steelers' 2024 Draft Class

It's a given. Every. Single. Time. Comparable to the parents' response when asked about their newborn. In the immediate aftermath of bringing a new draft class into the world, NFL general managers and coaches routinely sit behind microphones and they smile and gush when asked about the men the fruits of their three days of picking. Listen closely, and you might hear the strains of "Home On The Range" as background music.

"Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word
"And the skies are not cloudy all day."

General Manager Omar Khan and Coach Mike Tomlin uttered no discouraging words when they met the media inside the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Saturday after the Steelers finished picking/adding 7 players over the course of six rounds of the 2024 NFL Draft. But at no point during the 20-minute session did anything they said come off as disingenuous. And the reason had to do with the "why" for the vibe.

No. 1 Troy Fautanu, No. 2 Zach Frazier, No. 3a Roman Wilson, No. 3b Payton Wilson, No. 4 Mason McCormick, No. 6a Logan Lee, and No. 6b Ryan Watts are the draftees, and while unique individuals with different skill-sets, they all are tough, they are football lovers who are physical in their approach to the sport, and they are finishers, which should be understood in this context as coach-speak for having a mean streak.

• Said Fautanu, "There's only one way to play, and that's nasty and violent. You have to enjoy imposing your will on someone."

• Said Payton Wilson during the Draft Day Party at Acrisure Stadium when asked by Cam Heyward: "What is Pittsburgh getting with you?" Answered Wilson: "A guy who if there are 75 downs played, I want to be out there for all 75, and I'm going to be looking to rip someone's head off on every one of them."

• Roman Wilson is a speedy, big-play receiver, but he revealed his motto when it comes to doing the gritty, physical work associated with his position as: "No block, no rock."

• Said Frazier about the benefits of being a four-time heavyweight champion as a high school wrestler: "It helps a lot, because every snap is some form of either hand-to-hand combat or just using leverage, which is why wrestling is so similar, from using hands to understanding leverage and how to move people. That's really what offensive linemen do."

• Said Lee about how and why he grew up as a Steelers fan: "I had a friend and his dad, Austin and Rich. They were huge Steelers fans. So they kind of got me started, and then I started really getting into historical NFL stuff. I just loved the Steel Curtain era. I loved watching Mel Blount slam people on their heads. I was always a big Steelers fan growing up."

• Said McCormick when asked to explain his approach as a run blocker: "I bring that same intensity and effort all the time. I mean, it's a pride thing. I feel like that gets things going for an offense, and it's an exciting time to be a Steeler."

Based on the last two draft classes, and the moves made during free agency, it's easy to get caught up in that excitement.

Khan reiterated a core belief after the pick of Fautanu on Thursday night, "I've said it from the beginning – the offensive line, defensive line, those are big priorities. The big men. That's where it starts. We want to be a physical football team, and it's got to start up there."

Really, for the first time since a lot of these rookies were born, the Steelers look to be able to assemble an offensive line with the same playing demeanor as their defensive teammates. Tackles Fautanu and Broderick Jones; guards Isaac Seumalo, James Daniels, and now McCormick and Frazier added to the interior.

It is said there is strength in numbers, and in the world of professional football toughness and demeanor can become contagious within the larger group. As was said about Mike Webster's presence impacting the rest of the offensive linemen, "It's like walking down a dark alley carrying a big stick."

Moving forward from 2023's 10-7 finish in the regular season, the Steelers have been going about the business of re-making their offense. A new coordinator, who previously was good enough at that job to parlay it into a head coaching gig. A major overhaul of the depth chart at quarterback. A completely different complement at wide receiver. And now, another year's worth of assembling a group of mobile, agile, and hostile offensive linemen. Throughout Tomlin's tenure, it never has been fun for opponents who are going against the Steelers defense. Things are starting to look as though going against the offense isn't going to be a lot of giggles for opponents, either.

The Steelers went into the draft needing a starter-capable center, help at wide receiver, at least one more capable cornerback, additional competent backups along the offensive line, and assorted depth/complementary pieces on the first two levels of their defense.

Now as they enter the post-draft/offseason program phase of the calendar, that cornerback is still missing, and it sure would be comforting to have another receiver. Toward that end the Steelers restructured Alex Highsmith's contract a few days before the draft to create a cap savings of some $7 million. A little more ammunition in case an opportunity presents itself over the next month or so.

A couple more times in media sessions during the draft, Khan brought up the subject of being open and willing to listen to ways of improving the roster, and since getting the job it has been his ability to devise a realistic plan to lessen the risk associated with opting for the aggressive path that has been the impetus for positive change. The Steelers are still three weeks removed from the start of OTAs, which is nothing more than contact-free, football-like activity in shorts anyway. There is still time, and it's better to be savvy than reckless.

Fifty years ago, the Steelers put together the greatest draft in NFL history, and it is absurd and cruel to suggest or predict another of their draft classes could match that one in the categories of either star power or impact on both the franchise and the league as a whole. Instead what they're seeking is a return to the style of play that was a trademark of those Steelers teams.

In that sense, the 2024 draft class certainly looks like a step in the direction of returning to that style. Of course returning to that style doesn't mean there are 10 Hall of Fame players in the building, but assembling a roster of guys who love the sport and are passionate about competing for championships within it can get the job done in this current version of the NFL.

To put a face on that, Troy Fautanu.

"His commitment to the game, his passion for the game really was very evident in communicating with him," said Tomlin about the franchise's most recent No. 1 pick. "That was relayed to us by those who had an opportunity to coach him, and we also talked to a lot of guys who played with him. His passion is real. It is a calling card. Coupled with his tremendous athletic talent."

And in the immediate aftermath of picking a 7-man class that filled some positions of need and strengthened other areas of the depth chart with committed, passionate guys like Fautanu, it's fair to praise those responsible for drawing up the plan and then thoroughly executing it.

A job well done. Now it's on to the next phase, and there's a lot of work to be done there.