Friday, April 11, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jonathan Stewart Oregon running back stops by to show Steelers his foot is OK.The Steelers have not selected a running back in either of the first two rounds of the draft in the past 19 years. Yesterday, they took a look at one who could snap that drought.
Oregon's Jonathan Stewart paid a visit to the Steelers yesterday primarily to show off a small body part, his right big toe. He had surgery on the turf toe, injured last November, after he said he was encouraged to do so by NFL personnel at the Indianapolis draft combine in February.
If not for the toe injury/surgery, Stewart would be a top 10 pick. With it, he could be drafted by the Steelers, who don't pick until 23rd. It may be a Catch 22 -- if Stewart's toe is not a concern, he likely will be taken higher in the draft; if it is a concern and he lasts until the Steelers pick, do they use their first-round draft choice on a potential medical problem?
Independent scouting services do not agree on where Stewart ranks after his surgery. Pro Football Weekly rates him first among backs, NFL Draft Scout ranks him third and Scout ranks him sixth.
Stewart certainly had the goods last fall as a junior to prove he can be a top NFL running back. At 5-foot-10, 235 pounds, he ran for 1,722 yards and a 6.2-yard average per carry. He's a powerful runner inside and reminds some here of Barry Foster, a compact runner who set the Steelers' single-season rushing record with 1,690 yards in 1992.
Why would the Steelers be interested in Stewart when they have Willie Parker, the NFL's leading rusher through 14 games last season, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher and a two-time Pro Bowl back?
Because when they needed the tough yards last season or needed to run the clock to preserve a lead, they had trouble doing so. A power runner complimenting Parker could make a below-average offensive line look much better. Plus, the depth behind Parker is skimpy.
Najeh Davenport is set to make a $1 million salary next season as a backup. Gary Russell was a little used, undrafted rookie, although they do like his potential. Carey Davis is the lone fullback on the roster. Mewelde Moore was signed in free agency to serve as their third-down back.
Perhaps the Steelers will draft an offensive or defensive lineman or even another more pressing position with their first pick, but Stewart might be the ultimate bargain if he slips to No. 23.
While the Steelers normally stay away from players with injuries, they drafted tight end Heath Miller on the first round in 2005 under similar circumstances. Miller had surgery after the season to repair a sports hernia, which caused him to slip in the first round. The Steelers snapped him up with the No. 30 pick, and he's been a pleasant performer for them the past three seasons.
Georgia's Tim Worley was the last running back the Steelers drafted in the first round, in 1989 with the No. 7 overall pick.