2014 Draft Recap
How’d you like the draft? I have to admit I was shaking my head after the Stillers first pick Thursday night, thoughts of the nightmare ’08 class crashing into my mind.
But then a funny thing happened Friday. I started to like the Stillers’ draft. I started to like it a lot.
No, I’m still not sold on Ryan Shazier, whom I fear may be too light and too soft to play inside ‘backer in the NFL. But I do understand why the Stillers took him – why they felt they had to take him.
Football’s become a passing game, and not only that, it’s become a lateral one. These days, offenses run more bubble screens and all sorts of side-line to side-line stuff. Teams like Seattle counter this with speed defenders like Bruce Irvin, the big LB who runs a 4.4. That’s what makes the dominant Seahawks defense go: fast, versatile players who can line up at different positions, in unusually wide alignments.
Defenders like Shazier, whose 4.38 speed makes him one of history’s fastest linebackers, bring both lateral-pursuit ability and versatility to the table. I expect him to rush from the outside in certain packages. What’s more I believe he’s a Tomlin pick, and his arrival signifies that Coach will be looking to install a 4-3 defense once LeBeau retires.
No doubt the Stillers have nightmares of New England reaming their defense with Gronkowski and Hernandez, the new breed of TEs who can fly downfield. In the past we’ve cringed watching Larry Foote plod along covering guys over the middle; now we don’t have to.
The Shazier pick was shades of 1974, as we found out Dallas was on the phone with his agent as the Stillers were making the pick – so we know that there was at least one other team who thought Shazier was worth the first rounder. Likewise, I can respect the fact the team wasted no time turning in their card. Reach or not, they got their man.
Nothing pleased me more than seeing the Stillers steal Martavis Bryant (the big receiver I’d lobbied for in my pre-draft) in the 4th. Finally the Stillers can counter the kind of big receivers they face in their division: 6’3” Josh Gordon (when he’s not getting suspended); 6’4” A.J. Green; and 6’ 4” Marlon Brown, the big guy they wheeled out in Baltimore last season.
Bryant is a Ben Roethlisberger receiver, a big target Ben can look to downfield on scrambles. A negative on Bryant is that he’s only played full-time for a year, but to me that’s a positive – if he can accomplish what’s he done in just a single season, imagine what he can do after a year or two of pro polishing. M.B. is a late-first/early-second round size-speed combo – he’s said to play faster than Clemson teammate and top-five pick Sammy Watkins -- and represents to me this year’s ultimate draft bargain.
These picks also pleased me:
Stephon Tuitt DE, Notre Dame: A huge need here with Keisel’s departure and the busting of Ziggy Hood. Tuitt would have been drafted in the first round if not for an injury that caused him to put on weight last season. Before that he simply dominated. Tuitt will look good paired with Heyward.
Dri Archer RB/KR, Kent State: The Stillers have had success with other Golden Flashers like Jack Lambert and James Harrison. Now comes Archer, who has some people asking, why do we need him when we already have Stephens-Howlings? Let me explain something: Steph-Howl has excellent speed, Archer has elite speed (meaning there are maybe two or three other guys as fast as he is.) Jets like his are hard to pass up, and given he was picked at the end of the third (practically making him a fourth-rounder) lessens the reach factor. Archer can line up in the backfield or split wide, and his explosive kick returns could be the answer to that Jones guy over in Baltimore.
Shaq Richardson CB, Arizona: I liked Ross Cockrell, the Duke corner who held his own with Mike Evans last season. I’m good with this pick, however: a big, fast CB who represents great value in the 5th. Richardson made a name for himself at the all-star games after a relatively quiet college career. What stands out to me is that he was actively recruited by Carnell Lake for the UCLA program when he coached there. He needs some work, but adding Richardson to the roster makes the CB position look a bit less hopeless.
The team also bolstered their run defense with inside ‘backer Jordan Zumwalt and 6’7” 350-pound man-mountain Daniel McCullers. McCullers follows in the big fat footsteps of Casey Hampton (and maybe should be nicknamed “Big Brunch”).
The one criticism is that the team failed to address its cornerback situation, but I don’t see it that way. First of all, the team was set to take CB Justin Gilbert, but Cleveland ruined their plans by moving up and taking him (and reaching for him, in my mind). That left Kyle Fuller as the only other corner worth spending the #15 pick on (I still think Dennard’s overrated) but he too has disappeared before the Stillers got to pick. After that, there were no corners worth using a
a second or even third-rounder on; why reach?
Keep this in mind: the Stillers simply don’t select CBs with their high draft slots. In fact, not since the team took “Charred” Scott in 1997 has the team spent a number-one on a corner.
The Stillers choose to address pass defense with front-seven players emphasizing pass-rush pressure over coverage – they’ve taken three LBs and three DLs number-one since 2000 – an approach I happen to agree with. Allow me to present a modern-day example of why.
You know the play: last year’s NFC Championship, Seattle vs. San Francisco, 30 seconds to go. Richard Sherman makes an incredible play on Colin Kaepernick’s pass, tipping it into the hands of a teammate, and sending the Seahawks straight to the Super Bowl! What a hero!
Only it didn’t really happen that way.
In fact, Sherman was out of position on the play; a look at the replay shows that the 49ers receiver, Crabtree, is a good two steps behind him, waiting in the corner of the end zone. Crabtree has Sherman right where he wants him.
Unfortunately for Crabtree, Seattle pass rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett have blown up the right side of the 49ers line, and Bennett’s in Kaepernick’s face as he goes to throw. Kaepernick can’t plant his feet, and thus the pass is underthrown – but only by inches.
Had Kaepernick been able to set his feet and throw, he easily clears Sherman (who still has to jump up to bat away an underthrown pass) and it’s the 49ers who go to the Super Bowl to thump Denver. So instead of patting Crabtree on the butt, Sherman becomes the butt of jokes on Twitter and gets nicknames like “Toast” and “Duraflame.” But thanks to his buddies up front, Sherman gets spared such embarrassment and – in true Flacco fashion -- goes on to collect a huge new contract in the afterglow of Super Bowl victory.
Remember, this is the “great” Richard Sherman, supposedly the best corner in the game right now. Yet the defining moment of his career owed more to what his defensive lineman teammate did than anything else.
Do you see my point?
The fact is, in today’s pass-happy league, the cornerback position has lost a great deal of its value. This may sound contradictory, but the fact is, the rules changes have so favored the wide receiver that it’s become nearly impossible to dominate any more at corner, at least the way guys like Woodson or Blount once did. Unless you’ve got a Revis on your hands, it’s simply not worth spending the high draft choice on a corner.
NFL teams have largely chosen to build pass defenses around pressuring the quarterback, and as stated before, the Stillers are no exception. That’s why I agree with the LB and DL picks they made in earlier rounds, and I feel they did well enough with Richardson. If he’s good enough for Carnell Lake, he’s good enough for me.
Now that’s not to say the Stillers situation at CB is exactly encouraging. Ike Taylor is probably too old now to be playing the position, and as much as I like Cortez Allen, he hasn’t proven anything yet. However, I just don’t think the Stillers were going to solve their cornerback problem through the draft this year.
Besides, the Stillers WR position is almost as desperate. The loss of Cotchery is huge, and even Sanders’s departure leaves a void. Right now the Stillers have one superstar at receiver, and two or three big question marks. Who’s going to play Y or Z? I like Moye, but do we know that he’s the answer? And as for free-agent pickups like Heyward-Bey, well, he’s not even a sure thing to make the team.
This was by far a wide receiver draft, and if the Stillers hadn’t come out of it with a good catch, I’d have been furious. They lucked out with Bryant lasting as long as they did, but nonetheless they got their guy.
In fact, I’m more excited about this draft than I’ve been for years. The old, slow-ass Pittsburgh Stillers have added a 100-yard relay team to the roster: Shazier, Archer, Bryant and Richardson.
In football, speed kills. In the Stillers’ case, it will either kill them with a first-round reach for a fast player, or it will murder the opposition. Frankly I can’t wait to see which way things will go.
AROUND THE NORTH: We’ll be reminded twice a year if the Stillers blew it by passing on Darqueze Dennard, as the Michigan State CB landed in Cincinnati.
Finally, a word about the whole Johnny Manziel drama. Johnny Football was my favorite player to watch in college football, but I’m not sure how his size and skills will translate to the NFL. Still, I hated the fact he landed in Cleveland (I’d have much preferred they take the Charmin-soft Teddy Bridgewater). To me, Manziel’s either boom or bust, but I don’t relish even the chance he could do the booming in Cleveland. I’ve long said the Brownies could take the division if they didn’t have such a clown parade at QB. Now they have not one, but two legit prospects in Manziel and Brian Hoyer.