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5 initial thoughts about the Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 NFL Draft

It’s an exciting offseason to be a Steelers fan.

NFL: APR 27 2023 Draft Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Hey, that was fun. With the 2023 NFL Draft in the books, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Steelers get so much love in one offseason — from fans, pundits, and other NFL players. Rather than just analyze the players (which other people are more qualified to do), I thought I’d just share a couple reactions I’ve had in the draft’s immediate aftermath. Here goes:

Las Vegas Raiders v Pittsburgh Steelers
“Goons, man...”
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

1 – A Visit from the Goon Squad

One of the better sound bites to come out of draft weekend was Keanu Benton’s admission that Mike Tomlin told him he wanted “goons” down there in the trenches. Tomlin chuckled and admitted that’s what he’d said, then joked that he’d have to teach Benton some media savvy. But no one really explained what on earth a goon is.

If you’re a fan of hardboiled detective novels, you might think Tomlin wants something like idiot henchmen on the team — in which case, what the hell? But I think he’s saying more than that.

It turns out Tomlin used this term during a recent appearance on Ben Roethlisberger’s Footbahlin’ podcast. Coach T was telling his former quarterback about a semi-pro football league called the A7’s that he likes watching on YouTube, where the players go all out without pads, and just destroy each other. Check it out:

Did you hear it? “It is awesome... No pads... [big grin]... These guys are goons.” I think there’s a lesson in there about what Tomlin really wants: fearless street-brawlers who are in it for the love of the fight — lunatics who will go to the mud, who will knock each other senseless, who maybe prefer it that way.

There’s a story I’ve always liked about Steelers scouts driving to Ohio in 1973 as Kent State ran half-speed drills in a gravel parking lot. When they got there, they were appalled (in the best way) watching a toothless linebacker named Jack Lambert throw his body around at full throttle and pick stones out of his skin between plays. “That’s our guy,” they thought. And it was. I think that’s the kind of maniac Tomlin saw in the A7’s, and the kind of spirit and fight he told Benton he wants to see. Goons. Fantastic.

Some headlines this weekend said it looked like the Steelers are setting up to play “bully ball” this year. It’s more than a look, kids. This team is about to get fun.

NFL: AUG 05 Colts Training Camp
“What? It’s been 17 years since the Steelers drafted a WR in round 1? And they just acquired Allen Robinson? And they drafted two WRs last year? Well that seals it — they’re clearly taking a receiver at #17. Print it.”
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2 – Mock drafts are ridiculous.

Dozens of mock drafts all winter and spring pegged Army edge Andre Carter into the 1st or 2nd round; he went undrafted. NBC’s Chris Simms named Cincinnati’s Ivan Pace the #5 ILB in the entire class; he also went undrafted. No less than grand-old-man Peter King mocked Ohio State WR Jackson Smith-Njigba to the Steelers at #17. A wide receiver? Then, unrelated, the ESPN discussion crew spent the entire lead-up to Pittsburgh’s first round choice, arguing about which WR the Steelers might take. Seriously.

Nobody knows anything.

Every single chair in this photo is more comfortable than the one in my office.

3 – Omar Khan is killing this offseason, but this has really been two years in a row.

Hard to believe it, but this team appears demonstrably improved from last season at nearly every position. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in one offseason. Even at the spots where they didn’t bring in a new face, like offensive backfield, they’re in better hands (in that case, with the improved OL for the running backs, and experience for Kenny Pickett). With the exception of some depth (which admittedly isn’t nothing), it’s hard to find a spot where this team isn’t better.

And Khan deserves huge props for the free agency haul as well as the excellent draft. (Andy Weidl too.)

But I just want to point out that the Steelers had an excellent offseason last year too — with six out of seven 2022 draftees making the final 53, plus Jaylen Warren. And of course, the free agents from last year were also first-rate – with James Daniels, Mason Cole, Larry Ogunjobi, Levi Wallace and Damonte Kazee starting games last year, and most of them figuring to see plenty of snaps this season too. (To say nothing for Myles Jack, who played through injury last year, and may yet wind up back in town when it’s all said and done.)

This team has been through a crazy roster-churn, remaking nearly the entire squad in just two years, while somehow retaining a core of all stars and leaders (such as T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Cam Heyward). Not enough has been said about this; it’s an impressive couple years.

I have a suspicion that shedding Roethlisberger’s franchise QB salary is the real hero here, as that allowed the team to sign worthy free agents, which then simplified the draft. (Example: ILB was a priority upgrade this year. Then the Steelers signed two potential starters in free agency, in Elandon Roberts and Cole Holcomb. That meant that they were free to trade down in the 3rd round and pick up a selection in the 4th, which became Darnell Washington and Nick Herbig. If they hadn’t signed Roberts and Holcomb, they’d have likely been forced to stay at #80 to take — and then then probably start — Trenton Simpson, whether he was ready or not. If Washington and/or Herbig contribute this year, remember that it was Holcomb and Roberts who cleared the path.)

Whatever the case, I want to give a round of applause to Omar and Weidl for this offseason. And I also want to take the volume down on some of the “thank goodness we’ve moved on from Kevin Colbert” nonsense I’ve seen on the fringes. I’m enjoying all the love the Steelers are getting for this draft, but this team is on a two year run of outstanding roster-building. And both of these years count.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers
One of these jerseys will make a more valuable collectors item in the future.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

4 – The Steelers family connections make some sense.

Everyone knows what I’m referring to, I’m sure. The Steelers are the most family-centric roster in football since probably the game’s early days. Every time a pick or a signing with a familiar surname is made, there’s a round of murmuring — even among Steelers fans — that XX was only signed to make his more famous family member happy. (You’ve heard this with Derek Watt and Connor Heyward in the last couple years, I’m sure, and JPJ and Herbig put family into the spotlight again this weekend.)

Mike Tomlin issued a rejoinder to this (or to an adjacent accusation) back in 2017 when the media decided that drafting local cancer survivor James Conner was a sentimental/P.R. choice: “We don’t draft stories,” Tomlin said, “we draft players.” Conner proved his worth the following year when LeVeon Bell’s holdout pushed him into the starting lineup, and then the 2018 Pro Bowl.

That said, the family connections — the Watts, the Heywards, the Edmunds, the Herbigs, Peezy’s son — don’t look like they could all be coincidence. And I don’t think they are. I’d argue that the Steelers are building a culture, not just a fantasy roster. And so it matters that the guys in the locker room look after each other, that they lift each other up and keep each other in check, and that they’re high character hard workers. They’re all NFL quality players on the field, but it matters who they are inside the helmet too.

Example: when you sign Nate Herbig (who Andy Weidl knew from previous stops), you’ve got a sense of what kind of a man he is — his work ethic and values and enthusiasm, what kind of teammate he is, why he loves the game. When you then go scout his brother Nick, you’re not just watching tape and talking to coaches; you’re part-way down that road already. You already know some of the fires Nick was forged in. See what I mean?

I remember a story about Maurkice Pouncey’s mom from the former center’s rookie year, who was (if I recall) pushing her son to try to play in the Super Bowl even though he’d just blown out his knee. Mike Tomlin didn’t put Pouncey on the field in Dallas, but he loved that story, and the values it exposed. What kind of attitude raised Pouncey? One that said, “no time for complaining, boy, you’ve got work to do.” Maurkice’s brother Mike was always too expensive to bring in at OG, but there’s no doubt Tomlin would have signed him in a blink, even if he was just a rotational backup, just to get more of that attitude.

Signing brothers doesn’t make either of them a star — more often than not, one of the pair has been a bit-player — but you get a guy you can work with, who you know will help any way he can, and who will be a presence in the locker room, on special teams, and anywhere else you need. That’s not the worst way to build a culture.

2023 NFL Draft - Round 1
I say Goodell should wear a pink suit to next year’s draft.
Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

5 – One thought about the Eagles and their much-discussed draft

Most outlets are falling all over themselves to declare Philadelphia the presumptive 2023 champs already. And on paper, Philly landed an embarrassing haul — highlighted by THREE players from the historically great Georgia defense, to add to the TWO MORE they already had. I’m a little less sanguine about packing that many former teammates onto one squad (which doesn’t always work), but it’s hard to argue with the talent on a player-for-player basis. They’re good at roster-building over there.

But one comment I keep hearing is about DT Jalen Carter, thought by many to be the most talented player in the entire draft, but considered a serious character risk. The argument I keep hearing is that Carter landed in the perfect spot specifically because Philadelphia has so many of his Bulldog teammates already there. Guys he knows are more likely to keep him in line, is the logic.

And I just keep thinking: isn’t the opposite just as likely? That is, weren’t those same guys his inner circle when he was getting in trouble with the law back in Athens (drag racing and then fleeing the scene after a teammate and coach were killed)? A single former teammate, who knows how to talk to him, seems useful, but is this haul of Bulldogs really the support system you’d want — so much familiarity and comfort that he’ll feel right at home, and perhaps not feel all that motivated to grow up?

Character flags are tricky to work with, and there’s admittedly no one right way to build a kid into a man. In fact, some of you are probably noticing that I just praised the Steelers for building around familiarity and family bonds. I did; and I’ll hold to that. With Connor Heyward, the Steelers picked up an H-Back/TE whose character and work ethic they could vouch for. And they placed him on a team where he may very well grow into the same kind of locker room leader as his legendary brother. The familial bond is a character study; the brother/teammate dynamic is a mentorship. When they signed Derek Watt, they knew they were getting not only a good blocking fullback and ace special teamer, they were also getting a low-ego hard worker who would, again, be a great locker room tone setter. Even famously mouthy Joey Porter respected the game and his teammates, and JPJ grew up on that respect. Steelers-style familiarity multiplies the team chemistry and leadership. Adding Carter (red flags and all) to a team with FOUR college teammates seems just as likely to do the opposite.

I don’t know anything about anything, so maybe everyone else is right about Philly being the perfect spot for Carter’s talent. But logic tells me the opposite is every bit as likely.

Whatever the case, this draft has been a fun ride. We’re about to head into the quiet season, but I feel like this fan base is more jazzed about the upcoming season than we’ve been in a long long time. With a little luck, this season might live up to the hype. Time will tell. Go Steelers.