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Drafting in the New World Order

Discussing the Le'Veon Bell pick in the light of the new realities in the NFL.

Leon Halip

If you want to read a long, impassioned, and yet increasingly tedious comment thread, check out Neal Coolong's post from last night, "Struggling for Reason in Steelers' Second Pick."

I'm not entirely sure why he had his knickers in such a twist, unless, craftily, he was trying to get a good argument going. He succeeded magnificently, in that case.

Personally, I only knew a couple of things about Le'Veon Bell before Merril Hoge called his name: he is a running back, the Steelers liked him enough to take him to dinner, and he didn't catch my attention sufficiently in my BLA research to warrant a place in my draft. (But then, few running backs do, although I think Trent Richardson is a fine-looking man.)

I also didn't think the Steelers should take a running back so high in the draft, mainly because I tend to feel that if your offensive line is good enough, pretty much anyone can pick up a decent number of yards, and therefore if you really want to bolster your run game you should beef up your left tackle.

But then I don't work with these young men, either, much as I would like to. I'd like to teach them to sing Christmas carols properly, for one thing. But the following comment in the above-mentioned thread (I believe it was approximately Comment No. 389) by HW86 gave me pause for thought

1st and 2nd round draft picks are so valuable/important and when you have to use two of them in five years on a RB, it genuinely hurts your ability to fill other team needs

I absolutely take the point here. But one of the things there has also been a lot of impassioned discussion about on this board is how long it typically take the Steelers to get even their high-round picks on the field. And the reality is, with four-year rookie contracts, you just haven't got that long to mess about.

Let's pause for a moment to consider the free agents who left this season. Keenan Lewis, perhaps the most universally lamented, was a third-round pick in 2009. His first season he spent most of it on the bench with back problems. His second season he spent most of it on the bench with anger management issues. Prior to his third season he took the trouble to go to new DB coach Carnell Lake and ask for extra coaching, and worked his tail off. By the second half of the season he was starting to show some real promise, and he won the starting No. 2 corner position with the departure of William Gay. He played very well this year, essentially leading the league in passes defensed, although he apparently had also attended the Ike Taylor Swaggin' U in ball skills.

In other words, the Steelers got a year and half of use out of a third round pick. (And you could argue he was worth more than a third-rounder, as they traded a second-round pick to get an extra couple of thirds.) His development pace was slow enough to ensure he impressed the league during his final year under contract, and thus made him expensive to keep.

And yes, I realize the contract with the Saints was scarcely Darrelle Revis type numbers. It's easy to say the Steelers could have kept him, but we don't know the details, nor do we know whether the Steelers would have been able to get him at that price point, or whether he gave the Saints a home-town discount.

Next up, Rashard Mendenhall. The 2008 first-round pick, Mendenhall, through no fault of his own, missed essentially all of his rookie season. (Unless you consider Ravens-baiting to put him partially at fault. At best it wasn't smart.) He had decent years in 2009 - 2011, and was injured (or suspended for indifference) for much of 2012. He and the Steelers were clearly over each other, and he signed with Steelers West.

Mike Wallace, perhaps the best third-round Steelers pick since Hines Ward, produced early and often. In the process he pretty much priced himself out of remaining a Steeler, but he gave us some exciting footage to remember him by. He's departed, naturally, for warmer and richer climes.

In the meantime, the Steelers' 2009 and 2011 picks have been allowed to slowly ripen, as has been the traditional Steelers way with defensive players. Let us sincerely hope they haven't rotted off the vine in the meantime. It's difficult to say with certainly what the situation is at this point. Were they supposed to beat out the starter sooner (especially in the case of Hood,) and couldn't? Were they reaches at their pick number, and show poor judgment on the part of the Steelers' staff? Or will they break out and have a huge year, just in time (in Hood's case, at least) to be able to demand a lot of money in free agency? In that case, the pick was good, the utilization wasn't. Or perhaps it just took that long.

My point? I think the Steelers are feeling a sense of urgency. In the late rounds they can take flyers on development projects (as they did, apparently successfully, with Kelvin Beachum.) But I have a feeling they want to get their upper round picks on the field from Day One. If they turn out sufficiently well to not be able to afford them when they hit free agency, fine. They will do their best within their means to keep the guys they really want, and they will let the ones they think are more easily replaceable walk with their blessing.

And speaking of urgency, Ben Roethlisberger isn't going to be in his prime for too many more years, and then comes the exceedingly expensive and chancy process of replacing him. They've done their best to help him out by spending some serious pick wattage on the offensive line in the past two years. But I'm guessing they see the window for the seventh ring to be closing quickly, and they picked players they thought could make an immediate impact.

Would I have loved to see them trade up to grab Cyprien before the Jags got him? Heck yes. He was a BLA player for me : 0, but he also seemed like a really good player in an area of need. But what do I know? As MaLoR would say, I just herp-a-derp on BTSC. The first three round picks aren't very sexy, but they are clearly who the Steelers wanted. They were one of the few teams in the past two nights who slammed their picks in practically as soon as they were on the clock, and Colbert and Tomlin looked like the cats in the cream jug in their press conferences.

They may have been wrong. Or, God forbid, something may go horribly wrong, like brilliant LB prospect Sean Spence's gruesome training camp accident. But it is absolutely premature for any of us to do anything other than speculate. Which is what I'm doing now.

The NFL landscape has changed, and I believe the Steelers have changed to meet it. They may have changed in the wrong ways, but for those of you hollering about rookies needing to make an immediate impact, you can hardly complain they aren't trying. I predict that, barring injury, every one of these picks will see significant playing time this season.

I also predict, for what it's worth, the next four rounds will feature development projects at safety, O line, and ILB. But I know just as much (or little) about it as anyone else except the Steelers' staff right now. Let the games begin!