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'Setting The Table: 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers Draft Review'

Sponsored Post: This post is presented by Sprint. Bringing you the first wireless 4G network from a national carrier. Only on the Now Network. - Michael Bean -


We continue with our third, and perhaps final, installment of sharing some of the outstanding articles penned by fans, journalists and unique story tellers for last year's inaugural edition of the Maple Street Press Pittsburgh Steelers Annual that I compiled and edited. You can read the first two articles I shared last week here and here. Both have been well received and are worth reading if you haven't done so.

Below is the 2009 Draft feature that I asked a fellow by the name of David Banks to write. You may know him better as steeler.lifer round these parts. Sure, I could have asked a more nationally recognized name to write about last year's draft, but I simply didn't trust a national draftnik to know enough about the Steelers to do a great job. I've read countless cookie cutter articles from the main guys at well recognized draft sites, and frankly, I'm often disappointed, not because the writing's poor or the analysis way off base. Instead, I typically feel unsatisfied by the lack of passion for the subject that becomes transparent to me while reading.  

Instead, I entrusted the BTSC contributor that had proven to be the most level-headed, knowledgeable and experienced voice about the draft on the site in years past. (Sorry, HighSchoolSteeler, once you get your own computer and all the time in the world as a freshman in college, I'll holler at you). I don't need to explain my decision to those of you who have been around long enough to know what kind of insight and reason Banks brings to the table with his analysis. Hell, the dude wrote up Peter King-like MMQ columns each week about the action in the BTSC Fantasy Football League - which he won by the way. To our newer brethren, hopefully this well written piece goes a long way towards explaining why I asked him to write something similar for this year's edition.

Now, to his article, which in hindsight really only has a few flaws. I suppose I should say before proceeding that the verdict is still very much out on the 2009 draft class. But as you'll see, Banks correctly identified the possibility of many, if not all, of last year's rookies contributing for the six time SB champs in 2009. Yes, Frank Summers was perhaps a bit overestimated; sure, the author didn't see Kraig Urbik struggling so mightily with the transition to life at the NFL level; and finally, the author, like most all of us, didn't go on record with a bold prediction about a monster rookie season on the horizon for Ole Miss product Mike Wallace

Anyway, it's a solid discussion starter if nothing else as we anxiously await information about how the Steelers more intriguing and competitive positional battles are sorting themselves out later this spring and throughout the summer. For example, very recent reports from Steelers camp have 2nd year CB Keenan Lewis -  who had been dismissed ridiculously prematurely by too many impatient Steelers fans -  emerging as a viable candidate to start opposite Ike Taylor thanks to the marked  physical and mental development he's exhibited since his raw rookie campaign in 2009.

-Michael Bean-


Setting The Table: 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers Draft Review

by David Banks



The tough, blue-collar tradition of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been around for about as long as the team has participated in the NFL.  Rugged Bill Saul, who played middle linebacker for the Steelers in the 1960s, said, "Teams may beat us on the scoreboard, but they pay the price physically. Teams often lose the week after they play us.  There's a reason for that." For decades, a high level of aggression on the field was about all the joy Steelers' fans could expect every season and every Sunday.

The championship tradition of the Steelers did not begin until head coach Chuck Noll was hired 40 years ago. One of the first - and most important - orders of business for Noll was to strongly advocate the selection of defensive tackle Joe Greene from North Texas State University with the fourth overall selection of the 1969 NFL Draft. Greene was undoubtedly the gem of that draft, but it also produced defensive end L.C. Greenwood and offensive tackle Jon Kolb. Over the next five drafts, culminating in 1974 with the selection of four future Hall of Famers in the first five rounds (Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster), the Steelers completed the foundation for the Steel Curtain and a dynasty unequalled in modern NFL times. Using that prolonged period of success evaluating talent, the Steelers drew up the blueprint for building championship teams and have been the league's most faithful adherent to it, through good times and bad.    

Times are good once more, with the Steelers winning Lombardi Trophies five and six in the last four years. As was the case during the dynastic years of the ‘70s, and to a lesser extent during the ‘90s, there is a direct correlation between success at the draft table and success on the field - and not just in terms of successfully drafting talent, but also in how the organization approaches scouting and player development.

There is a Steeler way of doing things - an often imitated but never recreated combination of toughness, talent, heart and high football IQ. Those selected to don the black and gold are trained to reflect Steeler traditions established by the consistency of only three coaching regimes in 40 years and a single and involved presiding ownership family. Simply put, the formula works.

"I like to describe being drafted by the Steelers as getting accepted in a graduate school program," said former NFL scout, assistant coach and administrator Pat Kirwan, now a respected senior analyst at "They are going to teach you how to play the ‘Steeler way' before they ever ask you to perform."

That proven formula didn't stop Director of Football Operations for the Steelers, Kevin Colbert, from raising the stakes as he prepared for his 10th draft this past April as the final voice for the organization's personnel decisions. On the surface, the Steelers seem set. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is just now entering his prime years, with two Super Bowls already on his resume, and a growing reputation as a big-game player in the mold of Terry Bradshaw. There are plenty of weapons around him. The defense is dominant. Mike Tomlin, one of the league's youngest coaches, has already proved to be a unique motivator, teacher and team-builder. He needed just two years to win a Super Bowl and,  in doing so, became the youngest head coach ever to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at just 36 years of age. His coaching staff doesn't want to leave and his players leave it all on the field, every week. 

This past off-season the Steelers lost two players to free agency. Cornerback Bryant McFadden and No.3 wide receiver Nate Washington were both key contributors, but the Steelers seem confident in William Gay and Limas Sweed as replacements at the cornerback and wide receiver positions, respectively. They waited until the day before the draft before signing their first free agent from another team, former Indianapolis backup cornerback Keiwan Ratliff.

So Colbert undoubtedly took many people by surprise when, a few days before the Draft, he said: "We need for it to be a special Draft. We lost a couple of guys in free agency off a good team. We get the majority of our players back, but we have to account for some of the guys that are no longer with us and further deletions ... as our cap situations continue to move forward and evolve."

What happened last season, from the Steelers' perspective, is already in the past. "That special group of men in that locker room at the end of that game - that's gone forever," Tomlin said the day after beating the Arizona Cardinals. "There will be a new 53-man (roster) ... nothing stays the same in this game."

Far away from the bright lights and glory of Super Bowl-winning press conferences, off-season television appearances, movie premieres and celebrity golf tournaments, the Steelers acknowledged there were numerous areas that needed to be addressed if they wanted to continue to compete for another championship in the immediate future. The defensive line is stout but aging, with all three starters and all but one of the three top backups over 30 years of age. The much-maligned offensive line contributed to Roethlisberger being sacked 46 times. The renowned Steelers' power running game struggled all year, culminating in Tomlin opting to kick a field goal early in the Super Bowl, despite the goal line being just inches away. Sweed's struggles in limited appearances left the team with no proven depth behind starters Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward. The departure of McFadden and the not-too-distant retirement of veteran Deshea Townsend left the team in need of cornerbacks. The Steelers were returning kickoffs with a fullback (Carey Davis) and a short-yardage specialist (Gary Russell). Unless Holmes was on the field, a positive punt return was a fair catch.

Perhaps most importantly, the Steelers' front office is looking ahead to a difficult 2010 off-season filled with free agent veteran starters, as well as costly contract renegotiations with young stars LaMarr Woodley and Holmes within a very tight cap framework. The process of finding and grooming replacements, as well as lowering the overall team salary structure to allow the re-signing of the most important free agents, had to start this year. They needed new talent in specific areas, but it had to be talent that fit into a 40-year Steeler tradition.

"How much are you willing to be seduced by talent?" Tomlin replied to a question about the Steelers' approach to the draft. "One of the things we've talked about, quite frankly, is that we're not going to allow that to happen ... The things you can't measure - the character, the toughness, the smarts - we're more inclined to be seduced by those things."



If there was one thing Steeler fans could be reasonably sure of when the 2009 NFL Draft kicked off, it was that the team's first-round pick would be a solid player. Colbert has not missed on a first-round pick since taking over in 2000. Whether by trading up, trading back or waiting patiently for the best player available, each of his picks from 2000-06 (Plaxico Burress, Casey Hampton, Kendall Simmons, Troy Polamalu, Roethlisberger and Heath Miller) became a starter by his second season. All but Burress - the lone first-rounder lost to free agency in Colbert's tenure - were starters when the team began the 2008 season. The 2007 first-rounder, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, split time with Larry Foote last year and will start in 2009. The 2008 first-rounder, running back Rashard Mendenhall, started one game in his rookie season as an injury replacement for Willie Parker. Mendenhall didn't make it out of that game, suffering a shoulder injury on a train-wreck of a hit from Ray Lewis, but will likely share running back duties with Parker this year. 


"If you miss on a first-rounder, to me that's inexcusable," said Colbert, who has not had to try to make any excuses for first-round selections.

However, at No. 32 overall, thanks to the Super Bowl victory, there was no clear indication of who that first-round pick would be. Most draft prognosticators finally settled on a trio of centers with the versatility to play guard or center: Alex Mack, Eric Wood and Max Unger. Mack was considered to be the best pure center, Unger the most versatile and Wood the most physical at either guard or center. Defensive lineman Evander (Ziggy) Hood, an energetic one-gap tackle from Missouri who didn't necessarily leap out as a 3-4 defensive end prospect, seemed unlikely to last to the 32nd pick. At least half a dozen other candidates at offensive tackle, cornerback and wide receiver sprouted up in mock predictions.

The three key teams in determining the Steelers' pick were Cleveland, Indianapolis and Buffalo. The Browns traded down three times in the first round before selecting Mack 21st overall. The Colts, in need of a defensive tackle, selected running back Donald Brown of Connecticut 27th overall. The Bills, in need of help all along the offensive line and with Mack already gone along with the four top offensive tackles, chose Louisville's Wood at No. 28. The Tennessee Titans, having lost defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth in free agency, might have also been considering defensive line at No. 30. Perhaps encouraged by rookie Jason Jones' performance (three and a half sacks) as Haynesworth's replacement in a late-season game against the Steelers, the Titans opted for wide receiver Kenny Britt.

The Steelers wasted no time picking Ziggy Hood, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the selection of Joe Greene by taking another defensive lineman from Texas (Amarillo). Yes, the physical talent and athletic measurables of the 6-3, 300-pound Hood were seductive. He had been outstanding not only on the field at Missouri against the pass-happy offenses of the Big 12, but also at the Senior Bowl and the Combine. The Steelers were ultimately seduced by the character, toughness and intelligence he had demonstrated at every stage of his four-year college career and postseason evaluation.

"We liked him from a football standpoint when we saw him play in the fall," said Colbert. "It was exciting to see him available when we were picking at 32. He was just somebody that we felt good about from the first time that we scouted him until when we saw him at the Senior Bowl. When we met up with him at the Combine, everything kept adding up that this is a high-quality player and person."

"Ziggy Hood is a Steeler type of player - there are no holes in this guy," added Tomlin. "He is a high character guy. He plays; he has a hot motor. He loves the game of football. He is a captain, leader and good football player."

Hood says he is ready to take on the challenge of being a Steeler.

"You're on a pedestal to perform, especially in a city like this that prides itself on its football team," says Hood, whose nickname was given by his grandmother. "You have to live up to the history, what the team produces, and all the great D-linemen that came out of here. I am going to give it everything I've got, and hustle is going to be my No. 1 priority. I may not be the biggest, strongest, fastest guy out there. But I'm going to give everything I've got and I won't ever quit on a play."

Defensive line coach John Mitchell has already seen that on the tape. 

"Here is a guy who can run and plays with a good motor," said Mitchell. "This guy stays on his feet. He is going to give you 60 minutes of football. He is a strong guy; he is very intelligent. He is not going to have any problems coming in here learning our scheme. The things that he has done at Missouri are very similar to the things that we are going to ask him to do here."

At the draft table, the Steelers were waiting, wondering and then hitting the phones before determining what to do with their second-round pick. Colbert admitted some interest in trading up (reportedly for Unger, who went 49th overall to Seattle), but didn't find the right partner at the right spot. The Steelers' draft board started to show there was more value in the third round. When Denver expressed interest in moving up, Colbert went into action, trading the 64th pick and the Steelers fourth-rounder to the Broncos for two third-round picks (79th and 84th overall).

"It was a chance to pick up some extra picks," explained Colbert.  "It was a nice group of guys left and rather than just taking one of those guys, I think we will have a good chance at getting three. We got to the point were we looked at what was left in the second round and thought this was the better option, the Denver deal."    



For diehard Steelers' fans, Day Two of the Draft was like going through a supermarket with a grocery list of eight items and finding them all in Aisle One. It was beautiful to watch, with need meeting value like clockwork and Colbert addressing each area of team concern with logical (and fan-friendly) picks.    

  1. Round 3 (79). Big nasty interior O-lineman? Check: G Kraig Urbik (Wisconsin; 6-5, 328).  
  2. Round 3 (84). Speedy receiver with return ability? Check: WR Mike Wallace (Mississippi; 6-0, 200).
  3. Round 3 (96). Big cornerback? Check: CB Keenan Lewis (Oregon State; 6-1, 195).      
  4. Round 5 (168). Defensive back with return ability? Check: CB Joe Burnett (Central Florida; 5-9, 190).
  5. Round 5 (169). Power runner? Check: RB Frank (The Tank) Summers (Las Vegas; 5-9, 240).      
  6. Round 6 (205). Defensive line depth? Check: DE Ra'Shon (Sonny) Harris (Oregon; 6-4, 298).
  7. Round 7 (226). Interior O-line depth? Check: C A.Q. Shipley (Penn State; 6-1, 304).    
  8. Round 7 (241). Better run-blocking? Check: TE/FB David Johnson  (Arkansas State; 6-2, 260).      

While first-round picks have been a lock for the Steelers in this decade, there have been some notable misses in the middle portion of the draft. It's still too early to judge last year's picks in rounds three through five (linebacker Bruce Davis, offensive tackle Tony Hills and quarterback Dennis Dixon), but the only Colbert draft that to date has earned an "A" for mid-round production was 2002, when the Steelers took safety Chris Hope, linebacker Larry Foote and running back Verron Haynes. On first assessment, the trade with Denver accomplished exactly what Colbert and Tomlin hoped it would.

"I thought it was critical when we made the decision last night to go with three (third-round picks) and have four picks in the top 96 picks in the draft," said Tomlin. "We're excited about being able to do that and getting some quality. And we feel like we did that. We got four players in the first three rounds in areas where we wanted to get players: some big, young people on the offensive and defensive line; a wideout with some speed capabilities who is capable of stretching the field, hopefully similar to the way that Nate Washington did, who's also a kick returner; and a six-foot corner who can run. It was a productive day."

As with the selection of Hood, Tomlin referenced Urbik's "four-year body of work" as a major contributing factor to his selection. He's a product of a good offensive line program at Wisconsin where he started 50 games, the last 34 at right guard, and allowed only three sacks in his final two years. He's a mature player who will come into his first pro camp just four days younger than the incumbent starting right guard, Darnell Stapleton.

"I love him," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "Big, tough, nasty type of guy that has position flexibility. He's played some tackle.  If you just go out and play one-on-one you aren't picking him on your team. On offensive line there are a lot of guys that don't play good one-on-one. It's learning how to play together. This kid understands football. He's a big physical guy that we think can play guard or tackle."


There's a special connection between the other two third-round picks. Wallace and Lewis were boyhood friends growing up in New Orleans, playing Pop Warner together and remaining teammates through high school. They planned to attend Oregon State together, but Wallace spent just two days on campus before switching to Mississippi to follow his high school coach. To be selected in the same round of the NFL Draft, by the same team, made it a great day for both families.    


"It has always been my dream to play in the NFL. It's also a dream to play with one of my best friends," said Lewis. "Since the age of six when we played Pop Warner together, we have played together ever since. I definitely can cover him. He thinks that he can take me so now he is going to have his chance. We have been competing hard since high school."

Wallace is a developing wide receiver who started to put things together for the Rebels'  new Houston Nutt coaching staff in his senior year. With a solid frame and exceptional speed, he can stretch defenses and compete immediately as a kickoff returner.

"He's an outside speed guy who is an excellent kick returner," said Arians. "We really liked him. We'll just throw him in the mix and the best ones will come out. We're looking for that guy that is going to take Nate's spot in the three wides. He's a very capable player for that."

Lewis meets the Steelers' cornerback criteria of physicality and speed: 20 bench reps, fluidity (a very good 6.89 time in the three-cone drill), speed (4.49 in the 40) and explosiveness (10-foot, 10-inch broad jump and 38-inch vertical). With his range and size, he could be a future candidate at free safety, but for now he will be groomed to compete at cornerback and perhaps someday complement fellow New Orleans native, cornerback Ike Taylor.    

"You have to be physical to play in this game," said Steelers' defensive backs coach Ray Horton. "You can be a cover corner if you want to be a cover corner, but you better pick the ball off, and there are not a lot of guys that do that. You have to stop the run to make them throw the ball, and he is a big physical corner, a la Ike Taylor."

A short but compact cornerback with great ball skills (16 career interceptions), Burnett also dazzled as both a punt and kickoff returner at Central Florida (14.5 punt return average as a senior and three career touchdowns; 28.7 kickoff return average as a senior and two career touchdowns).

"Keenan Lewis is a player who can do some things that you like to do in the NFL, especially with the type of receivers that are in the league right now," said Horton. "Joe is a little more elusive and a better athlete at the ball with his return abilities. It is a good mix having a big, strong corner and having a smaller, athletic corner. It's a good balance to have on your team."

Physicality is the name of the game for the other Steelers' fifth-round pick, running back Frank (The Tank) Summers. He's a tough-to-tackle load at 5-9, 240 pounds and was an outstanding special teams contributor at UNLV. He showed some necessary fullback blocking ability at the Texas vs. The Nation game and also has good hands. The Steelers liked him from the beginning of the evaluation process and sent running back coach Kirby Wilson to the UNLV Pro Day to work him out, then brought him to Pittsburgh for another interview.

 "He exhibited throughout his college career the ability to move the piles," said Wilson. "When he was in the goal line areas he was a guy that could carry the ball when they knew he was going to get it and score touchdowns. He is also a very capable receiver coming out of the backfield. I think people will be surprised when they see him."

"When you put the UNLV tape on, very rarely does he get dropped in the backfield," added Tomlin. "He's a big, powerful back who is not a fish out of water in the special teams' game and that's attractive to us."    



Ra'Shon (Sonny) Harris had a Pittsburgh connection even before the Draft ... well, sort of. He's from Pittsburgh, California and played football and basketball for the Pittsburgh Pirates high school team, the same school that produced Steelers and NFL running back legend John Henry Johnson. Harris was rated one of California's top 50 high school recruits after a dominating prep career as a 6-4, 290-pound D-lineman. An injury in his sophomore season in Oregon slowed his development and he put on extra weight as he focused his training in the weight room. He didn't start until his senior season but after an intensive training program that saw him lose 20 pounds and gain overall fitness, he was a force on the Ducks' defensive line.

"He is still learning how to play football," said Steelers line coach Mitchell. "He uses his hands well and stays on his feet and can run. For a guy in our defense, if he can't use his hands and stay on his feet, he doesn't have a chance to play. He gives me something to work with. I am excited to have this guy."    

How often is a seventh-round draftee one of the most popular picks a team could make? It happened this year when the Steelers selected Penn State center A.Q. (Allan Quay) Shipley.  A product of nearby Moon Area High School (and teammate of the son of late Steeler legendary center, Mike Webster), Shipley made prep headlines as a defensive lineman. But even then, high school coach Mark Capuano saw a position switch in his future.

"Most people talk to him about the defensive side, as a nose guard," Capuano said in a 2002 Pittsburgh Tribune Review story, "but I think he'd be a heck of a center. He runs so well and his feet are so quick."

A few years later, Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno came to the same conclusion. After a freshman season on the defensive line, Shipley was asked by "Joe Pa" to switch sides on the line of scrimmage. Shipley fumed a bit, but soon caught on, attacking the position with the same relentless physical energy he used as a defensive line mauler, and learning to use his quick feet and low leverage to dominate defensive linemen and win the Rimington Award in his senior year as the nation's top center. His arms may be too short to fit the NFL prototype, but he's smart, strong, tough, a leader and convinced his destiny is to someday start for his favorite team. Within a week of being drafted he had already asked to be given the No. 52 jersey worn by Webster - who, by the way, was also a 6-1 scrappy center from the Big Ten Conference.    


The Steelers closed out the draft with a name that 99 percent of fans around the league will instantly dismiss as a future training camp casualty. That might in fact happen, but there's also reason to suspect David Johnson will last much longer. Johnson doesn't fit the ideal ‘measurables' of an NFL tight end at 6-2, but he's a legitimate in-line blocker with tremendous lower-body strength to support his 260 pounds. He also has long arms, big soft hands, is a solid lead-blocker and has the ability to produce yards after the catch (16.2 reception average at Arkansas State). Basically, he is a prototype H-Back, but if he proves he can provide the blocking from the tight end position that is so important to reviving the Steelers' running game - and which helped Arkansas State produce the nation's No. 18 rushing offense - then he is right in the mix.

Does it all add up to the "special Draft" that Colbert felt the team needed? No one knows yet. No one will have any idea until training camp and beyond. First will come the summer heat, the unremitting ache of two-a-days, the soreness and injuries of NFL-quality contact, and the bewildering challenge of playbooks and assignments. But for at least a while, the Draft looks great on paper and feels just right in the hearts of most Steeler fans.