Surprise, surprise: Steelers wind up with receiver on first round
When free agent receiver Antwaan Randle El signed with the Redskins last month, Santonio Holmes began to think it might happen. The Pittsburgh Steelers were his favorite team, and he was what they needed -- a fast downfield threat who creates matchup problems and returns kicks.
Realistically, the Steelers and Holmes weren't confident this match would occur. Holmes, of Ohio State, figured to go midway through the first round in a receiver-thin NFL draft class, and the Steelers didn't choose until 32nd and last.
But when four defensive players, then six, then nine in a row were drafted midway through the first round Saturday, receivers coach Bruce Arians said he "started jumping around" in excitement that the Steelers might get a receiver. Unexpectedly, they did exactly that.
After having never traded up in the first round until they did so for safety Troy Polamalu in 2003, the Steelers dealt a third-round choice and one of their three picks in Sunday's fourth round to the New York Giants for the No. 25 pick.
The price was relatively steep, considering the Steelers gave up only a third- and a sixth-round pick to move up for Polamalu. But they didn't realistically expect to have a chance to get what they rated as the best receiver in the draft, and their two extra fourth-round picks made it possible to move up to No. 25 and draft Holmes, who is 5-10.5 and 188 pounds.
"To get a player of that quality, there was no hesitation to make that move," director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "Sitting there with the 32nd pick, it's not a value pick. We knew it would cost us more than in previous years."
The Steelers didn't stop at making one trade or getting one receiver. They also dealt the final pick of the second round to Minnesota for two third-rounders, picks they used on Syracuse safety Anthony Smith and Florida State wide receiver Willie Reid.
Smith (5-11.5, 192) was a productive though occasionally inconsistent player in the Big East, making 14 interceptions and blocking six kicks. Colbert and coach Bill Cowher rated him higher than Southern Cal safety Darnell Bing, a player the Steelers brought in for a personal interview.
"He was a good player on a bad team, and he stood out," secondary coach Darren Perry said of Smith. "He played from start to finish, and that says something about him as a player."
The production is there with Holmes: 53 catches for 977 yards and 11 touchdowns last season in what wasn't a pass-reliant Ohio State offense. He also averaged 12.8 yards per punt return and 21.7 yards per kickoff return, and Cowher is most excited by his versatility.
Reid (5-10, 189) wasn't as productive, with only three career touchdown catches, though he did make 50 catches for a 12.7 average last season.
Randle El was more valuable to the Steelers as a kick returner and multidimensional threat than he was a receiver; he didn't have a touchdown catch after the first game of last season until the playoffs. Holmes might not be able to throw a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl like Randle El did, but figures to be more productive as a receiver. He also gives the Steelers the deep threat they didn't have last season after Plaxico Burress signed with the Giants.
"His ability to stretch the field, that's something we've got to give Ben," Cowher said, referring to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "Hines (Ward) occupies the middle, and we're not going to get away from running the football, but we've got to get some people out there who can make plays."
Like Arians 1,000 miles away, Holmes began jumping wildly upon hearing the news at his Belle Glade, Fla., home.
Despite being known for his flashiness and, at times, his overabundant confidence, Holmes has always liked how the Steelers play as a team -- how Ward averages 1,000 yards per season but also blocks with a passion, how Roethlisberger spreads the ball around in an offense that can run and pass with equal effectiveness.
"He is coming into an offense where the primary focus is to run the ball," Arians said. "So, he is going to catch 100 balls• No. But he should be able to break games open and be a big play type of guy and draw some attention away from some other guys."
For now, Holmes is expected to begin next season playing behind Cedrick Wilson, whose production picked up late last season. Even if he has different expectations.
"Right now, I'm looking forward to coming in and being the starting wide receiver and making as many plays as possible," Holmes said.
Despite consistently drafting late in the first round, the Steelers have been creative enough to land what they felt was the best or second-best player available at their position of greatest need for four consecutive years. That run started with Polamalu and continued with Roethlisberger and last year's first-rounder, tight end Heath Miller.
"I don't know if we go into it that way, but if we can get the top-rated player at his position, I think we've done well," Cowher said.