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Kovacevic: Steelers better be right this time

| Thursday, May 8, 2014, 11:33 p.m.
Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Ryan Shazier (2) pressures Purdue Boilermakers quarterback Danny Etling (5) during the third quarter of the NCAA football game at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind. on Nov. 2, 2013. Etling threw an incompletion on the play.
The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Ryan Shazier (2) pressures Purdue Boilermakers quarterback Danny Etling (5) during the third quarter of the NCAA football game at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind. on Nov. 2, 2013. Etling threw an incompletion on the play.

They'd better be right.

To put it kindly, the Steelers' brass hasn't earned the benefit of anyone's doubt over the past half-decade's worth of evaluating college talent. So when their turn came Thursday night in the NFL Draft at No. 15 overall, and pretty much the entirety of the football world anticipated a cornerback — the franchise's greatest need by such a margin that there's no real runner-up — the name called was that of … an inside linebacker: Ohio State's Ryan Shazier.

As Mike Tomlin would say, obviously.

And as Tomlin and Kevin Colbert actually did say moments after making the pick at the Steelers' South Side HQ, if anyone thought they'd set out to fill a specific need, then think again.

“You have to put blinders on the ‘need' word,” Colbert said. “What we needed was a defensive playmaker. And he's a defensive playmaker.”

I asked both men if the glaring need at corner — Ike Taylor is 34, and he and Cortez Allen are coming off rough seasons — ever entered into their decision.

Colbert: “Ryan Shazier was someone we valued very highly. We're well aware of who we have on our team. But when we can add a player of quality, it'll override the need anytime.”

Tomlin: “This is a highly productive guy, with about 150 tackles this past season at Ohio State. This guy's going to make a lot of football plays for us all over the field.”

Those are all fair points, if isolated. But a 53-man roster is never built in isolation, least of all one coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons.

Look, I won't doubt a syllable of what the Steelers say about Shazier, even if another inside linebacker, Alabama's C.J. Mosely, had been higher on most draft boards yet went two picks later to the Ravens. Shazier was an absolute beast for the Buckeyes, leading them in tackles the past two years, including a ridiculous 143 in 2013. He's a bit undersized at 6-1, 237, but Lawrence Timmons is 6-1, 234. Patrick Willis, the 49ers' standard-bearer at the position, is 6-1, 240. Besides, as Tomlin stressed, his greatest assets are his “rare air” speed — some scouts had him timed at 4.38 in the 40 — and a “football hunger.”

It sounds wonderful. If Shazier plays mack to Timmons' buck, the Steelers could be set at inside linebacker for years, coupled with maybe being set on the outside with Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones.

All that, plus Shazier comes with a clean record, a psychology major and, for what the snapshot was worth, came across as a pretty cool customer in his brief conference call Thursday: “I know that the Pittsburgh Steelers are known for defense. I know Dick LeBeau's been there for a long time. I couldn't be happier.”

But I'll say it again: They'd better be right. And not just because their pick will be measured head-to-head against the Ravens for the foreseeable future.

Darqueze Dennard, the Michigan State corner many had lined up with the Steelers and who some projected for the overall top 10, was there to be taken. He was passed and went 24th to the Bengals, so we'll watch that play out head-to-head, as well.

Calvin Pryor, the Louisville safety who was the best at his position and another position of need, was passed.

For that matter, a slew of gifted wide receivers, any of whom could have lifted Ben Roethlisberger's offense to another level, all were passed.

Sure, those can still be addressed over the eight picks coming these next couple of days. Corner, in particular, almost must be addressed in the second round, in large part because it lacks depth in this draft.

Moreover, time will tell on the 2010-13 classes. Worilds and Cam Heyward reminded us all last season of the benefits of patience. David DeCastro and Le'Veon Bell could be outstanding. Jones is about to get his chance. And let's not overlook that Antonio Brown is already one of the best sixth-rounders in team history.

Even so, the potential for those classes doesn't exactly feel overwhelming at this stage, and that remains deeply unsettling. A franchise founded on the three principles of draft, develop and extend can't succeed without getting the first of those right. It doesn't take a Mel Kiper to see that the 2008 and 2009 draft classes going poof led directly to these 8-8 seasons, not to mention the blown-up cap and unprecedented run of free agent signings this offseason.

If that doesn't change imminently, new people should be entrusted with the drafting. For all we know, the Steelers have passed that point already.

No pressure, kid.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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