Labriola On

On Bettis, Boykin, who's 'looking good'


LATROBE, Pa. – Ready or not, here it comes:

  • On Saturday night, Jerome Bettis will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the final jewel in a career that always will have him remembered as one of the best of the best among all Pittsburgh Steelers. And it started with a trade that was precipitated by his original team losing faith in him.

The Bus arrives in Canton, Lynn Swann takes part in First Ball.

  • The whispers at the time were that Bettis was a malcontent, a bad guy, a selfish player, and so after the Rams used their first-round pick back in 1996 on Lawrence Phillips – who actually was a malcontent, a bad guy, and a selfish player – they sent Bettis to the Steelers. In the deal, the Steelers acquired Bettis and the Rams' third-round pick in the 1996 draft in exchange for a second-round pick in the 1996 draft plus a No. 4 in 1997.
  • In retrospect, Tom Donahoe, the Steelers' Director of Football Operations at the time, should have been arrested immediately and charged with grand larceny. The Rams used the Steelers' second-round pick to select fullback Ernie Conwell, and then the following season they packaged the Steelers' No. 4 pick with two No. 6 picks to trade up and select offensive tackle Ryan Tucker. The Steelers used the Rams' third-round pick in 1996 to select outside linebacker Steve Conley.
  • At the time, the trade for Bettis was questioned by some who believed the draft pick compensation the Steelers gave up was too high. But remembering the particulars now should serve to remind all how much of a crap-shoot the NFL Draft actually is. Tucker, a right tackle, and Conwell, a fullback/H-back were serviceable guys who never ascended to the level of being voted to a Pro Bowl, and Conley was a bust whose only contribution to the Steelers was that he brought a fifth-round pick when he was traded to the Indianapolis Colts a couple of years later.
  • Brandon Boykin is not Jerome Bettis, and this isn't meant to insinuate he will reach the same level at cornerback that Bettis achieved as a running back. But there is a valid comparison here in that the Steelers acquired a player whose original team had soured on him, and that the draft pick compensation sent to the Philadelphia Eagles to complete the trade is seen by some as being too steep.
  • As a refresher, the Eagles will get the Steelers' fifth-round pick in the 2016 draft, unless Boykin plays 60 percent of the defensive snaps this season, at which point the compensation becomes a fourth-round pick.
  • This isn't to suggest a return to the Buddy Parker days when the Steelers routinely traded high draft picks for aging veterans on the downsides of their careers, because that's just stupid. But it's also short-sighted to rule out ever trading draft picks for players. Trading draft picks for players should be a method to use in an effort to be better, and not just as a short-term Band-Aid.
  • Brandon Boykin just turned 25, and in his second NFL season he tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions. The last Steelers cornerback to finish a regular season with as many as six interceptions was Rod Woodson in 1996, when Boykin was 6 years old.
  • Yes, I understand that Boykin can become an unrestricted free agent next March, and if he would leave then the Steelers essentially traded a draft pick for a rent-a-player. That move, if it happens, can be judged then. But if Boykin becomes an interceptor here, the Steelers will respond with a representative contract offer, because intercepting the ball is a skill this new-look defense needs to complement an offense that has all of the makings of a championship-caliber unit.
  • And with Boykin also having gone public in Philadelphia about wanting a chance to compete for a starting job as an outside cornerback, did you notice how Coach Mike Tomlin put Boykin No. 2 at right cornerback on the first depth chart of this preseason, right behind Cortez Allen?
  • Maybe Cortez Allen responds the way Keenan Lewis did back in the summer of 2012. That would be good for the Steelers. And if Allen can't or doesn't, that would be good for the Steelers to know.
  • The depth chart is always of interest, particularly at this time of the year, and there was some consternation in parts of Steelers Nation over the perceived snub of Martavis Bryant, the second-year player who showed up listed No. 2 behind Antonio Brown instead of as a starter alongside him.

This drill pits a wide receiver 1-on-1 against a defensive back within the red zone.

  • Don't underestimate Markus Wheaton. Because he played his college football at Oregon State, Wheaton wasn't permitted to participate in any of the offseason program during is rookie year of 2013, but he came to Pittsburgh after minicamp was over to get a jump-start on learning the playbook for training camp while mostly everyone else was on vacation. He caught up sufficiently to start the fourth game that season – in London against the Vikings – and he caught three passes before injuring some fingers, which effectively ruined the rest of that season. The next offseason, Wheaton was among the first guys to return to the practice facility to begin work for 2014. He had a solid season – 53 catches for 644 yards and two touchdowns – and he helped out the team by accepting the challenge of returning kickoffs and had a 24.7-yard average.
  • Ben Roethlisberger named Markus Wheaton the team's possible breakout player for 2015, and when the starting quarterback says that about a wide receiver that's what is known as first-hand knowledge.
  • Being that the Steelers have been living here on campus now for 14 days, the question has been coming from everywhere: "Who looks good?" Once I manage to resist the urge to veer toward the smart-alecky – which isn't always successful – my answer is obvious to me yet somehow disappointing to the interrogator.
  • Ben Roethlisberger. Just as it was during the offseason, I think Ben Roethlisberger has been very impressive. The ball has been coming out of his hand extremely quickly, and he has been very accurate throughout the first two weeks. When Roethlisberger is the quarterback during the daily "seven shots" drill, the offense has to be converting over 80 percent.
  • During Wednesday's "seven shots," Roethlisberger was the quarterback, and he was without Heath Miller, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton, none of whom were practicing. Those are some serious red zone weapons on the sideline, but it didn't matter. Roethlisberger converted both of his repetitions with passes to Le'Veon Bell. The first he dropped into the proverbial bucket in the back corner of the end zone, and the second one was out of his hand so quickly that the defense had no time to react.
  • What? So you want another name of somebody else who has been looking good at camp so far?
  • Most of you aren't going to be happy with this answer either, but I have to go with Cam Thomas.
  • Then quit asking already.
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