The ways in which college football differs from the version played at the NFL level have been discussed and applied in the debates taking place in draft rooms all over the league at this time of the year. The speed of the game, the skill level of the athletes, the complexities of the schemes all are elements to be considered when trying to project whether a college player will be able to put together a long and storied career as a professional.
Recent developments in the college game may not have made the projections NFL teams have to make during the annual draft any easier, but the comparisons are becoming more apples-to-apples, because specialization is becoming the name of the game in college football, too.
Coach Mike Tomlin has said that the Steelers align in their base 3-4 defense around one-third of the time over the course of a season, with the rest being divided among the various sub-packages that are determined by situations. Short-yardage, goal-line, two-minute, third-and-long all are situations that find NFL teams substituting personnel to try to counter what the opponent will be attempting to accomplish in that situation.
It's believed the Steelers will use this upcoming draft to shop for reinforcements for their defense at the inside linebacker and safety positions, and like the cereal aisle in your neighborhood supermarket there are many varieties from which to choose.
"The inside linebackers are changing as the college game has changed," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "There are probably more kids available in this draft, not just unique to this inside linebacker position, but to all the defensive – and even some of the offensive positions – where they maybe do one thing really well. Maybe they rush the passer better than they cover. Maybe they're better zone-droppers than they are man-defenders.
"Very few of them are what you might say are four-down-type players. Some of them are two-down, some of them are three-down. And some of them are only one-down players – special teams guys – but they'll still be on your team. The inside linebacker position has changed, and there are probably more specialist-type guys available than the unique top players."
The Steelers drafted one of the "unique top players" at inside linebacker in 2014, but Ryan Shazier won't play in 2018 because of the spinal injury he sustained in Cincinnati against the Bengals last December. Finding another Shazier is needle-in-a-haystack stuff, and then being in position to draft that kind of "unique top player" again sounds like expecting to hit the lottery twice.
But with specialization infecting college football the way it has taken over the NFL, maybe this weekend the Steelers can find some of what they seek.
"It's been a fun process to look at how the draft is evolving. There is more specialization within the positions," said Tomlin. "There are different types of inside linebackers, and there are different types of tight ends, and there are different types of cornerbacks. There are corners who focus specifically on inside-corner play. There are corners who focus specifically on outside-corner play. It really struck us this year in draft prep the level of specialization in today's college game. That's exciting from our perspective.
"What we've talked about," continued Tomlin. "and we think it's the appropriate discussion: we're going to take the best player, whether it's inside linebacker or corner or safety or offensive lineman, and we have enough flexibility within what we do to lean on the skill-set of the player we acquire."
Because of where they're picking in the first round, and because of the scarcity of "four-down inside linebackers," and because there isn't a team in the whole league that couldn't use another one of those, it seemed unlikely the Steelers could exit this draft with another Shazier. Because of the way specialization has become a bigger part of college football, the Steelers at least should have a better idea of the specific skills these prospects can bring.
"You see a lot more specialization. Our game has been about that," said Tomlin. "I just see the college game becoming more about that, too. I don't know that it produces any more discussion on our side, but it's just refreshing to see a nickel corner come to you in a draft who is more pro ready, more trained, more specialized in terms of the things he needs to do. The same way it's more exciting to see the situational pass-rusher come to you with more defined skill-sets, or the situational interior slot receiver. All of those guys, globally, are coming to you with more specialized talents. And that's good, because that's our game."
STEELERS NOTES: Colbert: "When I look at this thing collectively, we probably have about 90 guys (in this draft class) who at some time could become starters for us. Some of those will be first-rounders, and some may be seventh-rounders. It's a deep cumulative group. And even with depth-type players – backups and practice squad guys – there are probably another 90. So we're looking at 180 guys, and we usually pick from about 120 guys" … As things stand today, the Steelers own the 28th overall pick in the first round, but Colbert said, "Our pro scouts will be in contact with the other teams around the league, as we always do, to see who might be interested in trading up or trading down. We're open to going either way" … The Steelers have seven total picks: one in each of the first three rounds, plus two in the fifth round, and two in the seventh round.