Checkdown in the honor of Bill Nunn
I can’t think of a more appropriate tribute to the great Steelers personnel wizard who passed away earlier this week than this particular edition of the Checkdown.
For younger or less connected Steelers fans who may be wondering who Bill Nunn was and why that’s important, we’ll deal with that a little later. But of course, unless you’ve been residing under a rock with headphones on over the past few months 2014 NFL Draft Which just ended for the Steelers as I write this with the seventh round selection of Rob Blanchflower, whose name seems appropriate for a late round pick that no one ever heard of.
This not to say that the work is over. The signing of Undrafted Free Agents has just begun, a process that usually produces fruit for the team as well. But a huge step in shaping the 2014 roster and beyond has been achieved this weekend. From the reactions that have been received at this early point we can conclude three things. First, the general feeling, with the usual cranky exceptions, is that Steelers Nation really likes the results of this draft, and in spite of all the criticism directed at the team over the alleged recent draft disappointments, this is the continuation of a three year trend.
The DeCastro (named after the first player selected), Jones and Shazier drafts have earned high marks and left the Nation giddy in response. Second, everyone will have a quibble or two about the selection of a specific player. Third, those who were not surprised at how this thing unfolded please raise your hand.
Those who were perplexed or upset by at least one of the first three picks also raise your hand. The group think (fans, media, pundits and other ‘experts’) was this: The areas of need for the team were cornerback, wide receiver, defensive line definitely, with other areas of concern being running back inside linebacker and depth with the offensive line and tight ends. A consensus developed that the top priorities was cornerback and a ‘tall’ wide receiver. So, when an inside linebacker was selected in the first round some thought that in spite of months of preparation, Colbert, Tomlin and the Steelers brain trust had at minimum lost their discipline, and at worst their minds when they passed over one of the top cornerbacks in the draft because they got all warm and gooey over some linebacker.
Okay, fine. Best player available, exceptional talent, we get it. So they’ll get back on track on Friday and get that cornerback and (tall) wide receiver because we all agree (by all we mean everyone except those idiots sitting in the Nunn Room on the South Side) that’s the only sure path back to competitive greatness. And we all agree that we’re really smart about these things. So get with the program.
Second round, defensive lineman. Well, he’s pretty good, but c'mon. Third round, running back. Goddamnit! And yes, people did start cussing about then.
But what if they had been focused all along? They’ve had their stumbles but the Steelers scouting/personnel operation has been as consistently successful as any organization in identifying and developing football talent for 45 years. With that kind of track record might rivals be very interested in whomever the Steelers were very interested in, and might it not be in the best interest of the Steelers to not allow others to track their interests too closely; not their rivals, not the media, not even their know it all fan base.
And so they play chess.
The world has outlined a plan for the Steelers. It’s not that it isn’t a good plan, it is. It’s just that the organization has another plan. No one outside the organization knows exactly what it is, blackadar’s take recorded in the comments section of Anthony Defeo's piece was massively rec'ed and for good reason. The point is that corner play is not the only, and perhaps not even the best way to shut down an opposing pass game.
Steelers defenses of the past shutdown passing, not necessarily with stellar secondary play, though that was usually present as well, but beginning primarily with the play at the front. This should not be rocket science for our fan base. All you have to do is observe what makes for Ben's effectiveness; his ability to extend plays.
Pass coverage begins to seriously degrade after three or four seconds regardless of the quality of the backs. This is why most teams sell out trying to get to Ben, and also the importance of having a competent offensive line to thwart that effort (But just like strong run prevention and a quality pass rush aids pass coverage, conversely a strong running game aids the passing game, particularly with protection.) Taken from this perspective, the choices and their order make perfect sense. The acquisition of Archer who is a home run threat out of the backfield will do as much or more to promote the passing game as that of Bryant, the much coveted 'tall' receiver.
don't let fans influence anything
So while the experts in Bristol Connecticut, Los Angeles, media outlets and fan sites were counseling an emphasis on defensive backs and receivers, who were dutifully scarfed up by many teams, outfits like Pittsburgh (and Baltimore) collected the pieces that would checkmate these moves. What's so interesting about looking at this in hindsight is how obvious some of this is. How does one believe that wide receiver was as great or greater area of need as, say, the defensive line considering the following. The D line lost two starters and a key reserve, while the receivers, arguably the most consistently effective (and deep) unit on the team in 2013 lost a lot less. Not much in the way of lamentations when Sanders left. In fact, I'm sure some were lining up to help him pack. Cotch was more of a blow, but a lot of his production came because of the unsettled situation at tight end for much of the season.
So you have a defensive line led by a player who did not begin the previous year as a starter and was considered a bust in some corners, the injured heir to Casey Hampton, and not much else. You have a receivers corps who has one pro bowl/all pro quality receiver, some promising young talent and limited financial resources for free agency was invested in not one, but two veteran receivers. And the conclusion was that the higher priority was for a 'tall' receiver. It is true that you can't get fantasy points for defensive linemen. There is that to consider. And, by the way, how did those mock drafts turn out? I need to share that the normal practice of this exercise is to have a representation of the top stories of an entire week. Now, granted, what happened over the past 72 hours will be dominant, but you won't see much of anything from the earlier part of the week here, because based upon what has actually transpired, very little of it makes any kind of sense. Time to celebrate the end of the silly season.
The Nation welcomes the new first round draft choice and potential face of the franchise from Ohio State. The Buckeyes have been quite the pipeline for the Steelers in recent years, and if Shazier earns a starting nod then he in combination with Cam Heyward will replace Florida State (Timmons and Vince Williams) as having the greatest representation on the defense.
The normal practice would be to caution against the idea of a rookie, even a first rounder doing anything beyond making token contributions to the LeBeau defense in their first year. But the Master himself has stated that there is an openness to plug in some of the newcomers immediately into the system. What may at play here is something more than just the beginning of a new generation of Steelers defenders, but a significant evolution of philosophy as well.
Shazier would also seem to signal a trend in this year's selections in that there is a high level of athleticism, particularly speed and also some high character attributes as well. Apparently the team took to heart the criticisms of being slow. The group that is likely to emerge as starters will be characterized as collectively possessing a lot of speed and flexibility of function in that a player like Shazier, Timmons, Troy, Mitchell, Spence and others can play sideline to sideline rush the passer and play in coverage with equal facility. These 360 degree players would appear to be the response and counter to the spread offenses becoming more prevalent in the league. If true then it makes sense to plug the new players in immediately given that this is new so less of an advantage accrues to veterans, and Shazier, particular may be one of a very few that possess the skill set to successfully pull this off. What's exciting is that I and others may have to retract our beliefs that newcomers are generally a year or more away from being able to perform as starters.
Mike Tomlin's team
For much of his coaching tenure with the Steelers the head coach has been characterized as being the beneficiary of 'Bill Cowher's team'; the insinuation being that his contribution to the team's success has been minimal. I've always found the allegation to be inaccurate and insulting. However, we have reached the point where this falsehood is no longer sustainable because there are only five players remaining from the Cowher era (Ben, Troy, Heath, Ike and Greg Warren). The group that is being assembled would appear to close the door on the return of other players such as Brett Keisel and James Harrison who were part of the old order. Everyone from players to coaches reflects Tomlin's imprint. This transitional process has been ongoing for some time but this off season, and the draft in particular would seem to be a significant step in that direction.
Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers
We can distill the potential significance of this selection to projecting the impact of a past injury upon what the future will portend for Tuitt. If the injury issues are, indeed behind him then the team has stolen a top ten talent in the second round. If not then his play may be adequate, but star caliber performance may elude us. McCullers is intriguing in the same manner as is Dri Archer. Its rare that Steelers' acquisitions can be described as the 'biggest' or 'fastest'. He probably won't replace Casey Hampton's talent, he will take it a step beyond in terms of pure bulk. At the very least he projects as being entertaining just to have around and could be a training camp star. And if he can actually play...
These moves likely takes the position group out of crisis, creates some interesting internal competition scenarios and probably closes the door on the return of Keisel; with defensive line coach John Mitchell saying as much.
There has been an ongoing, not so successful effort to find a home run hitting offensive/special teams talent. In the past the team has turned to Stephan Logan and Chris Rainey and been disappointed. Archer could be different. Just 24 hours after being dazzled by the prospects of high end speed being brought to the table by Ryan Shazier, we are treated to a talent who is even faster. And as Tomlin put it, Archer is short, not small, meaning there may be fewer restrictions on his utilization. In the ideal Todd Haley now has two change of pace options for Le'Veon Bell; a big, bruising interior runner, and a super fast outside runner/receiver. Danny Smith may have the player who may finally relieve Antonio Brown from punt return duty. Another door closed in that it would be less likely there would be a return of LaRod Stephens-Howling.
Martavis Bryant and Shaquille Richardson
These are the two players that fans were looking to be procured in this draft. The desired physical attributes are present, though each seems to be projects in the short term. The nightmare scenario concerning Bryant is that he might channel some of the worst characteristics of Plaxico Burress and Limas Sweed. The argument against that is the presence of old school, no nonsense Richard Mann running the receivers room. The key with Richardson may be his ongoing relationship with Carnell Lake, who recruited him into college. He might blossom quite nicely in this environment. Its possible that the short term impact coming from these two players will be far less than the hype associated with their additions to the team.
Wesley Johnson, Jordan Zumwalt and Rob Blanchflower
It's unclear how things will eventually shake out for these players. Johnson would appear to have the most promising future under the tutelage of Mike Munchak. Some are comparing Zumwalt to Patrick Bailey. And is David Paulson having trouble sleeping?
The team also signed ten free agent rookies list here. There is still the possibility of additional signings of veteran free agents in June, but the roster going into OTAs is pretty much set. What stands out is how young this squad is. Lombardi number seven when it comes will belong to a new generation of Steelers.
Miscellaneous draft items
I for one am beyond delighted that we have the mock drafts and speculation behind us. Much of the draft related news is outdated, inaccurate or useless in light of what really happened at Radio City Music Hall the last few days, but there are a couple of items we can look back upon with interest. Rebecca Rollett concluded her look at the best looking players available. Jack Bechta provides a behind the scenes perspective on the process of the draft. Rodney Ketterlan returned after being largely absent since the Combine to provide his observations on the draft.
The assistant coaches
One of my favorite things about this time of the year is the assistant coaches get to interact with the press. Their style and perspectives always fascinate, and this year was no exception. One of the more interesting sessions was with Keith Butler who was available to speak about Zumwalt and Shazier, but also had some interesting things to say about Joey Porter and amended his position on the return of Sean Spence. John Mitchell is always interesting talking about a starting over with the defensive line. James Daniel on Blanchflower, Richard Mann on Bryant, Carnell Lake on Richardson, James Saxon on Archer, Mike Munchak on Johnson. All good stuff.
You might be tempted to think that Spence will be shunted aside in light of recent developments, but the news on him has been good this week. Keith Butler has backtracked on his statement of a year ago in feeling that a return by Spence would be miraculous, stating yesterday that a full recovery now looks possible. If so then the situation at inside linebacker could go from a relative weakness to ridiculously strong in short order.
In the wake of the acquittal of the men who assaulted him a year ago and the questions that the process raised, Adams received a significant vote of confidence from the team this week. The only discouraging aspect are from those fans who want to jettison Adams which seems to be motivated more by their disappointment in his performance on the field in 2013 than anything.
Pittsburgh West (the Arizona Cardinals) continue to provide a home for jilted or otherwise wandering Steelers. This week Bruce Arians and company welcome Larry Foote into the fold. Nice that he found a place in the league.
It's worth noting that good fortune continues to bless the Cleveland Browns. After landing the most exciting quarterback prospect in the draft, they lose their best receiver to a year long suspension for drug use.
Receive another in a long line of awards. This one is from Pennsylvania Broadcastors.
The NFL in Latin America
As many of you know Hombre de Acero of Five Burning Questions fame and other contributions resides in Argentina. Following on the recent successes of Steelers camps being run in Mexico, he is suggesting that some consideration be given to operating a camp in Argentina to serve a fledgling, but growing fan population there and in Chile and Uruguay. Be warned that this link is in Spanish.
The nerve center of the team's draft operations was located in a room that is named after Nunn whose role in the scouting operations of the team for over 45 years has been one of the crucial elements in make the Steelers one of the premier franchises in professional sports. Nunn continued to work with the team on player evaluation at the advanced age of 89, and was at the facility when he suffered a stroke. He passed away the day before the commencement of the draft, an interesting synchronicity. Those of us who take a serious interest in Steelers history are familiar with Nunn and what his contributions and loss meant to the organization. For those of you more inclined to react with 'Who?', I refer you to a couple of tributes I wrote this week. Here and here. Linked in the second is an article I wrote on Nunn for the Steelers Annual in 2011. And if you haven't done it, there's much on Nunn in Gary Pomerantz' book Their Life's Work, an important effort because so many from that era are leaving the scene now.