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Pittsburgh Steelers Pull Rare Surprise, Repeat History by Drafting Ryan Shazier

Raise your hand if you seriously thought the Pittsburgh Steelers would draft Ryan Shazier after the first 14 picks were made in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.

Didn’t think so.

This was the Steelers’ most dramatic, unpredictable first-round move since they traded up to take Santonio Holmes in 2006.

In recent years, the Steelers have either made picks to fill obvious needs, or they’ve gone for value and taken someone predicted to go in the top 15 who falls to them in the 20s.

Ziggy Hood in 2009, Maurkice Pouncey in 2010, Cameron Heyward in 2011 and Jarvis Jones in 2013 all were projected as Steelers first-round picks in at least a few mock drafts.

That wasn’t the case in 2008 and 2012. Rashard Mendenhall was expected to be taken in the top 15 in 2008, but he slid and the Steelers were there to stop his fall at No. 23. Same with David DeCastro in 2012. Few thought he would get past the Dallas Cowboys at No. 14, but the Cowboys traded up, DeCastro tumbled to 24 and the Steelers ran to the podium with his name on the card.

There were no tumblers this year. When the Steelers’ turn came up at No. 15, the consensus was Darqueze Dennard.

In a sampling of 20 final mock drafts, including five on CBSSports.com, 10 on NFL.com and one each on Pro Football TalkScott Wright’s Draft CountdownPennLive.comPeter King of the MMQB and Peter Schrager of FoxSports.com, seven had Dennard going to the Steelers. Six each had the Steelers taking Kyle Fuller and Odell Beckham Jr., and one had them taking Justin Gilbert.

Of that group of players, Dennard was the only one still on the board. Like Jones last year, Dennard was a player who most figured the Steelers would pick, but there was no guarantee he’d still be available.

He was, but when Roger Goodell announced Ryan Shazier’s name, jaws dropped all over Western Pennsylvania.

If there are any mock drafts in the blogosphere that had Shazier going to the Steelers, they’re harder to find than Honus Wagner rookie cards.

Interestingly, all of the aforementioned mocks had Shazier going in the first round somewhere between picks 19 and 30.

The Ohio State linebacker was on the Steelers’ radar. But the pre-draft discussion pegged him as a player who the Steelers would draft only if they traded down into the 20s.

It turns out that Shazier would have been gone if the Steelers traded out of the No. 15 pick. The Dallas Cowboys were all set to pick him at No. 16, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

That adds an intriguing historical parallel.

According to the NFL Network’s “Caught in the Draft” series, the Cowboys wanted to draft Lynn Swann in 1974. But just as they would do 40 years later, the Steelers were one spot ahead of the Cowboys and took the player they wanted. The Steelers were debating whether to pick Swann or John Stallworth, and time nearly ran out on them. They handed in their card with five seconds to spare, the story goes, and Stallworth was still on the board for the Steelers in the fourth round.

Imagine if the clock had run out and the Cowboys, not the Steelers, won four Super Bowls with Lynn Swann in the 1970s? It would have been as infamous as, well, Neil O’Donnell handing two interceptions to Larry Brown on a silver platter in Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers did the Cowboys no such favors in the first round of the 2014 draft.

Take that, Jerry Jones. You can’t have Shazier.

No one’s expecting the 2014 draft to alter history like the 1974 draft. That draft produced four Hall of Famers. It will never be duplicated. But foiling the Cowboys’ plans was a serendipitous tribute to the 40th anniversary of the greatest draft in NFL history and to Bill Nunn Jr., the Steelers scout who passed away two days before this year’s draft.

Nunn played a major role in the 1974 draft. He was one of the first to scout unknown players at traditionally black colleges and helped the Steelers discover Stallworth as well as players like Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood and Ernie Holmes before that.

The 89-year-old Nunn worked until the very end, and the 2014 draft will be the last one in which the Steelers have his input. It might have been his evaluations that influenced the Steelers to give Shazier such a high grade.

The 6’1″, 237-pounder led the Big Ten in tackles (144), tackles for loss (24) and forced fumbles (four) in 2013. He led everyone with a 42-inch vertical leap at the NFL Scouting Combine and was the top linebacker with a 10-foot, 10-inch broad jump. He’s expected to play inside linebacker for the Steelers, and he’ll get a chance to start right away next to Lawrence Timmons, the last inside linebacker the Steelers took in the first round.

That was in 2007, and in another historical echo, that was also the last time the Steelers had the No. 15 pick and the last time they drafted two defensive players in the first two rounds. They took LaMarr Woodley in the second round in 2007 and Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt in the second round this year. Even further, in both 2007 and 2014, a cornerback who many analysts associated with the Steelers was taken one spot ahead of them. In 2007, it was Darrelle Revis. This year, it was Kyle Fuller. According to the Post-Gazette, the Steelers wouldn’t have taken Fuller over Shazier anyway.

Now if only history could repeat the success of the 2007 draft. So far, Mike Tomlin has saved his best for first. The 2007 draft was his first as Steelers head coach, and he’s never had a better one or even matched it. Along with Timmons and Woodley, the Steelers also came away with William Gay and Matt Spaeth.

Perhaps it’s reassuring that this is a year ending in “4.” Since the storied 1974 draft, the Steelers have never had a bad draft on any its decade anniversaries.

In 1984, they drafted Louis Lipps and Terry Long.

In 1994, they drafted Brentson Buckner, Jason Gildon and Bam Morris.

In 2004, they got Ben Roethlisberger. Enough said.

The Steelers’ 2014 draft won’t be another 1974 draft and probably won’t be another 2004 draft. But another draft like 2007 is long overdue.

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