The Best Steelers Draft In Years

Turn your mind back three months in time. To the Super Bowl. Two minutes left in the game. Eli Manning drops back to pass, looks to his right, and fires. Think back to that moment, when you saw Asante Samuel - maybe the league's best cornerback - jump up near the sideline, hands raised to make an interception...

As you no doubt recall, he dropped it, the ball glancing right off his hands and out of bounds, allowing the Giants their improbable, thrilling, upset-clinching final scoring drive.

Now imagine that Samuel catches that ball. The Patriots get the ball, run out the clock, breathe a huge sigh of relief, and are crowned one of the best football teams of all-time. The talk about the Giants? Now: "They fought hard, kept it close, but in the end, couldn't stop the mighty Patriots, owners of the NFL's most fearsome offense ever seen."

Now turn back your mind one week to the NFL Draft, imagining still that the Patriots achieved perfection. And join me in the Steelers' post-draft chat wrap with ESPN.

Chris Berman: Let's start with your first round pick, left tackle Sam "Green Eggs and Ham" Baker of USC.

Kevin Colbert: Well, we actually thought for a moment that Rashard Mendenhall was going to fall to us at 23, which would have blown us away, but you know, everyone's looking for playmakers on offense right now. We always want to build depth on the line through the draft, and we're very pleased to grab Baker with our first choice.

ESPN: Second round, you guys grab defensive end Calais "I love" Campbell "soup" from Miami.

Kevin Colbert: We decided once again just to draft to our highest needs, and though that's not always panned out for us in recent years, all the guys we had rated highly were off the board. It's funny, you almost wish the Giants had won that Super Bowl which, you know, would have just shaken things up a bit with the draft. I'm not gonna lie to you, when it looked like they might beat New England, I was thinking to myself, 'There's gonna be a lot of value left on the board when we draft as everyone tries to mimic the Giants defense.' [laughs]

Chris Berman: [makes boom-boom-truck noise] I think you're right about that. Back to the studio and Mel Kiper, who's with Rick Smith, director of football operations for the Houston Texans.

Mel Kiper: Rick, you guys went ahead and grabbed Dennis Dixon in the third round of the draft. I love the pick - tell us a little bit about what your thought process was there.

Rick Smith: It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the league has changed a lot over the last several years. This used to be a run the ball, win-with-defense kind of league, but you look at the Patriots and what they did this year and the Colts and what they did in 2006. And the year before that, you know people forget, but the Steelers won three playoff games on the road when Ken Whisenhunt kicked that offense into another gear.

Defense is certainly important, but especially here in the AFC, you've got to have a great offense to compete right now. I think fans are a little slower to see this, of course, but the spread is working its way into the professional game. New England just killed everyone with the spread this year, and the Colts certainly incorporate some of those spread principles into what they do.

Of course in the college game, almost every great offensive team runs some version of the spread, and though some of those systems won't work in the pros, a lot of those principles are being applied successfully at this level.

So when we looked at Dennis Dixon, we thought he's just a perfect kind of player to help our offense along. He's kind of been mis-branded by some people as some sort of option quarterback - and he can run - but he's a much more complete quarterback than that. He of course had 583 yards rushing on just 105 attempts, including 9 touchdowns, but a lot of people want to downplay his passing, which we think is a mistake.

The kid hit on 68% of his passes as a senior, 8.4 yards per attempt, a 20-4 TD-INT ratio and 161.7 QB Rating. Those are video game numbers, Mel, and if he doesn't hurt that knee, he's holding a Heisman Trophy at the end of year. Probably a national championship trophy, as well.

At 6-4, he's got the height to play quarterback in this league, and our doctors are confident he's got a full recovery from knee surgery in front of him. He was maybe college football's most dynamic player last year and we can see him getting on the field for us in a variety of ways - not just at quarterback.

I've already fielded a few questions about Dixon asking if he's going to be like Kordell Stewart was for the Steelers not too long ago. In some ways, that's fair, in that we think he can be used in a variety of ways, but we want to be real clear here: Dennis Dixon is significantly different from Kordell. You know, Stewart was only 6-1, and though he was athletic, he didn't possess nearly the quickness or agility that Dennis has shown. Kordell's best single season passing the ball at Colorado resulted in a 146.1 QB Rating, which is good, but not great.

It's kind of a shame how Dixon's senior season ended, because a lot of fans not on the west coast didn't get a chance to see exactly how special a quarterback talent he is, but you know, maybe it worked out well for the Houston Texans. We grabbed him in round three and, you know, if he'd finished the year healthy, who knows? It's not unthinkable that he could have been a first or second round choice.

Mel Kiper: Thanks, Rick. I gotta agree with him, Chris. You look at Dennis Dixon and you're talking about a guy that made a great USC defense look absolutely silly. He went to the Big House and had the Wolverines down for the count by halftime. And I love what Rick had to say about the shift we're seeing in the NFL. As the Colts and Patriots set the bar in the league, everyone else is making adjustments to try and keep up. Great pick by the Houston Texans here.

 


 

Whether or not my imagined scenario is totally realistic, I do think the underlying point is a valid one. Two concluding thoughts here:

1) Before this draft, Pittsburgh's offensive skill position core was Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Willie Parker, Santonio Holmes, and Heath Miller. That's an outstanding top five to have, but it may partly mask from fans some considerable fraying around the edges. Nate Washington had a solid 2007 season, but isn't a game-changing player. The situation at tailback behind Willie Parker was frighteningly thin. Davenport was a terrific surprise source of help last year, but not someone we want to rely on. And we can't say for sure whether Parker has another 300-carry season in him in 2008.

And what about a back up to Roethlisberger? He stayed healthy all last year and put together a historic season, but what if he were to befall injury? How many of our eggs do we want to put in the Charlie Batch basket?

The point being: though there existed perhaps more obvious needs along both lines, the additions of Mendenhall, Sweed, and Dixon to our offensive depth shouldn't be underappreciated. Even if you don't share my enthusiasm for Dixon as a thrilling steal for the organization, it still should be viewed as a terrific fifth round draft choice as a potential back up for Big Ben.

2) It's always greatly tempting to draft strictly according to your most obvious needs, but for the best teams in the National Football League, the hierarchy of needs is not controlling. Though there's no "one/best way" that a team should draft, there are important principles that great teams use to drive their decisions:

* Do an elite job identifying the best talent and putting together your draft board accordingly.

* Be mindful of pressing needs, but seek players who you're sure can contribute.

* Trust your player development system to turn good talent into great players for your team. Use that trust to draft value without worrying excessively about plugging holes formulaicly.

* Identify inefficiencies in the market and exploit them. If the rest of the league is zigging (copycatting the Giants), then don't be afraid to zag (grabbing elite offensive talent that's slipped too far).

The bottom line is that context counts, and it's never enough just to look at the roster, make decisions about which positions are weakest, and draft accordingly. The New England Patriots are masters at this, drafting great players without obsessing over their needs. They know that when push comes to shove, they'll make things work with good coaching, execution, and some duct tape: Troy Brown at cornerback. Junior Seau at linebacker. Whatever.

And this year, unlike several of recent past, our Steelers drafted tremendous football players who didn't necessarily fit the fans' ideas concerning pressing needs. Pittsburgh's brass probably didn't plan the draft out the way it eventually wound up, but when the draft unfolded as it did, they took advantage.

That's good drafting, and the Pittsburgh Steelers should be - in my opinion - on any short list of teams which performed best on draft day.

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