SCI publisher Jim Wexell details how this year's draft did more than fill needs, how it was an interconnected maze of targeted players who are exciting, make plays and will keep the locker room harmonious, if not hopping.
Bruce Arians wore his favorite Cheshire smile as he told the Pittsburgh media that he’d written down the names of the Steelers’ third-round draft picks – Kraig Urbik and Mike Wallace – three weeks ago … “as guys I would love to have on our ball club. Just happened they fell,” Arians said. Urbik is the powerful right guard the Steelers need; Wallace is the deep threat Nate Washington used to be and the kickoff returner Nate never was.
Those players filled two distinct needs for Arians, but he said he wasn’t satisfied.
In an interview with a radio station during the excruciating four-hour wait between the third and fifth-round picks, Arians said he wanted one more player. He didn’t say who, and he wasn’t asked on air.
“Is it Frank the Tank?” someone asked during a break.
Arians put his finger to his lips and said, “Shhhhhhhh.”
“The Tank” became the pick. He was the short-yardage back from UNLV the Steelers had been following, and, according to Arians, Tank was coveted throughout that torturous and pick-less fourth round.
The 243-pound Tank filled a third offensive need: short-yardage runner. He’ll also make a terrific special-teams player in the Carey Davis mold. In fact, he may even replace Davis some day as the pass-catching fullback.
So even though he lost a fifth-round fight with the defensive coaches, Arians got every guy he wanted. The Steelers, after the long wait, opted first for another player they’d been scouting closely, Joe Burnett, in the fifth round.
Burnett has a slight build, but he’s a playmaker. Horton even compared him to Antwaan Randle El by saying, “I don’t want to compare him to Antwaan Randle El, but …”
Horton was afforded the luxury of a small, 4.55-timed playmaker – who plays a lot faster on the field – because the Steelers had grabbed their prototypical cornerback in the third round, Keenan Lewis. “He’s a six-foot corner who can run,” was how Mike Tomlin described him as if he were describing a car part.
In turn, Horton admitted the Steelers were able to draft such a precise part in the third round because they’d drafted their returner, Wallace, on the previous pick. They needed a wide receiver or cornerback who could return kickoffs, and the receiver did the trick.
The receiver, coincidentally, is a childhood friend of the “six-foot corner who can run.” Wallace and Lewis go way back to their childhood on the West Bank of New Orleans.
“Very familiar with that story,” said Tomlin. “I spoke down in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee several weeks back, and their wide receiver coach at Tennessee was not only familiar with him, but also Keenan Lewis. He coached those guys since they were in seventh grade. I heard detailed information about their story, but it’s not a secret. I think people that prepare for the draft knew the story of those young men and specifically Wallace and what he and his family went through in terms of being relocated and how it affected his senior year and recruiting process and all of that. Those kinds of life experiences harden you, and let’s face it:
The National Football League game is a game for the mentally tough – and we believe some of his life experiences will be a help to him as he transitions to the pro game because, of course, it’s not going to be easy.”
Tomlin is to be appreciated on several levels throughout that quote. But to stay on point, let’s appreciate his expanding network and how he was able to manipulate this draft so well, that he was able to hit on every exciting and interesting prospect he’d been tracking, from Ziggy to the Wisconsin right guard to the deep threat/big corner combo from New Orleans to Smokin’ Joe Burnett to Frank the Tank – whose workout the Steelers supervised in early March – and to A.Q. Shipley.
Of course, Shipley’s arms are too short and he plays only one position. But how many positions did Mike Webster play?
Even though Shipley has two centers – Justin Hartwig and interim right guard Darnell Stapleton – in front of him, he’s the only center, the only lineman in fact, who can get out in front of a screen pass and run and knock people down. It’s a failing that wasn’t rectified with Urbik, but was certainly helped with Shipley. His mobility just may become the reason he moves into the starting lineup in 2010.
But that’s just the conjecture of a short-armed writer.
No, Tomlin got the guys he wanted, and they’re “high-quality people, humble guys, and guys who can fit in. All of these guys fit that bill,” the coach said. “Things that we evaluate, like toughness, intelligence, these guys display that. This was a great day for us.”
This is his third draft, and it may turn out to be Tomlin’s masterpiece. On a championship team that didn’t need much help, went the common thinking, the Steelers couldn’t, wouldn’t use all of those picks. Well, Tomlin just brought in nine who fill specific needs. The competition will be fierce.
By Jim Wexell