Despite draft, questions remain for Steelers
The Steelers came away from the most talent-heavy NFL Draft in decades not only with the biggest player but also the smallest and fastest.
They drafted a linebacker who runs like a cornerback and the starter-capable cornerback and tallish wide receiver they knew weren't optional going into the three-day lottery.
They undeniably are faster: Ryan Shazier was the speediest linebacker in the draft, while running back-wide receiver Dri Archer (4.26-second 40-yard dash) was the fastest player period.
They unquestionably are bigger on the defensive line after adding 357-pound nose tackle Daniel McCullers, whose nickname is Shade Tree, and 304-pound Stephon Tuitt. They also are deeper at positions previously so thin — cornerback and defensive end — that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau admittedly was becoming alarmed.
But are they better?
“We thought it broke well for us,” general manager Kevin Colbert said. “We are happy with the results.”
This was a draft in which the AFC North rival Cleveland Browns made bold trades and bold moves — hello, Johnny Manziel, whose mere selection caused thousands of fans to buy season tickets. The Cincinnati Bengals took the cornerback (Darqueze Dennard) widely predicted to go to Pittsburgh. And the Baltimore Ravens took two potential defense difference-makers in linebacker C.J. Mosley and lineman Timmy Jernigan.
What did the Steelers do? They didn't trade up, trade down or careen wildly off track, staying true to the draft formula they've relied upon for years: Load up with productive players from BCS schools, and don't improvise much.
For example, linebacker Ryan Shazier, the first-round pick, is the kind of player Mike Tomlin likes to draft: a high-performance player from a big school whose skill set seemingly translates well into the NFL.
The Steelers believe Tuitt of Notre Dame would have been a mid-round first-round selection had a double hernia not slowed him last season and dropped him into the second round. He had 12 sacks as a disruptive defensive playmaker in 2012.
Third-round pick Archer looks to be the one “reach” pick: a multidimensional 5-foot-7 running back/slot receiver/kick returner who runs the 40 in the 4.2-second range but probably could have been drafted in a lower round because of his size.
“Return guys change games,” Colbert said. “In my mind, return guys are starters. They change games. It's really special.”
But if Archer perhaps went too high, wide receiver Martavis Bryant might have gone too low, in the fourth round — at least one round lower than projected.
At almost 6-foot-4, Bryant was Clemson's playmaker counterpart to Buffalo Bills first-round pick Sammy Watkins, and he immediately becomes the taller wideout the Steelers believe was a necessity to balance a receiving corps in which the other key components are shorther than 6-foot.
Even in the fifth round, secondary coach Carnell Lake said he believes the Steelers came away with a cornerback who could start soon in 6-footer Shaquille Richardson of Arizona.
“He has the ability to put a lot of pressure on the tall receivers that have been drafted lately,” Lake said.
But compared to the rest of the division, did the Steelers do enough to improve, not in 2015 or '16 but right now? They're coming off successive 8-8 records, and they haven't had three consecutive nonwinning seasons since 1969-71, Chuck Noll's first three seasons on the job.
Given the issues that accompany every pick, that's not a certainty.
Is Shazier, who plays in the 225-pound range, too small to be an impact defensive player?
“James Farrior played at 225-230 his last few years in the league, and he was a Pro Bowl guy,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said.
Will Tuitt's ongoing health issues (hernia, stress fracture) linger? And can Archer, for all of his undeniable speed, avoid the constant injuries that often hamper other players of his size?
Is Bryant too inconsistent — he drops a lot of passes — to become a reliable receiver?
“He's big, and he's fast, and he's raw,” Colbert said.
Is McCullers just too big — he's Casey Hampton big — to get into manageable playing shape?
Tomlin acknowledges he is a project, but Colbert labeled him “an obstruction … he does some things which make you say, ‘Wow.' … This guy is gigantic and can play.”
Those are a lot of questions for a draft in which there supposedly was so much talent to go around that every team anticipated going away happy.
“It was really a unique draft,” Colbert said.
But the Steelers don't need questions. They need answers, and those won't begin to come until Latrobe in July and August, and beyond.
In a division in which every other team appears to be better than it was in January, they can only hope that's not too late.