PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t take an inside linebacker in the NFL draft.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t want one.
It simply means when it came time to pick, they looked at their internal draft board, they looked at the players available in a position where there — at least on the surface — appears to be a serious depth issue and decided they didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.
“We’re not going to reach,” general manager Kevin Colbert said.
So the perennial AFC power didn’t. Whenever the Steelers found themselves on the clock, coach Mike Tomlin would urge Colbert to “respect the board.”
Translation: pick the players we think are the best, not necessarily the ones that check off a box just to do it.
The result? Seven selections that focused on versatility not availability.
First-round pick Terrell Edmunds did a little bit of everything in the defensive backfield for Virginia Tech. Tomlin believes wide receiver James Washington — taken in the second round — can line up anywhere on the field.
Third-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor is considered a swing tackle who could thrive under Hall of Fame line coach Mike Munchak.
Safety Marcus Allen was a proven sure tackler during his time at Penn State. Fullback Jaylen Samuels could be a tailback, a fullback, a tight end or even a slot receiver depending on what’s required. Seventh-round pick Joshua Frazier was part of the defensive line rotation at Alabama who could press for a roster spot.
“We believe these guys can not only help us in the future but they’re capable of helping us this year if they earn it,” Tomlin said. “These guys will be given an opportunity to carve out roles for themselves this year and if they do and it’s significant, great.”
Colbert pointed out the Steelers aren’t old at any position other than perhaps quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger turned 36 last month but has been telling teammates he could play several more seasons.
That’s fine by the Steelers. It also, however, didn’t stop them trading up to make sure they landed Oklahoma State star Mason Rudolph in the third round, just 16 picks after they drafted Washington, his college teammate.
“We valued (Rudolph) as much as the rest of the quarterbacks that were drafted (in the first round),” Colbert said.
A sentiment that could be telling about Pittsburgh’s intentions with the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Rudolph, the first quarterback drafted before the fourth round by Pittsburgh since the Steelers took Roethlisberger 11th overall 14 years ago.
The five quarterbacks taken in the first round are all projected as future starters. Read between the lines and the Steelers perhaps feel the same about Rudolph.
Washington, who won the Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver in the FBS last season, reminded Tomlin of JuJu Smith-Schuster, whom the Steelers took in the second round last season. All Smith-Schuster did was lead all rookies in touchdown receptions in 2017 with seven while also developing a reputation as a big-time blocker.
“He’s probably not the fastest but he’s as good a deep receiver that played college football this year,” Colbert said of Washington. “We think James can play outside and we think he can play inside and he may even have a chance to work as a return guy.”
The previous time the Steelers took a safety in the first round, they used the 16th overall pick in 2003 to draft Troy Polamalu. It’s heady territory for Edmunds, though Pittsburgh didn’t hesitate in part because of the many different roles Edmunds filled in for Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s scheme with the Hokies. Free safety. Strong safety. Linebacker. Edmunds can do a little bit of everything.
Allen wasn’t required to do quite as much with the Nittany Lions but both safeties head to the NFL with solid reputations as guys who can wrap up and not let go, a valuable commodity these days.
“To be able to add some guys that not only play the safety position but are physical tacklers … I think it’s been a good weekend for us from that perspective,” Tomlin said.
Ryan Shazier created the indelible moment of the draft when he walked to the podium in Texas to announce Pittsburgh’s first-round pick, his first public steps since injuring his spine in a game against Cincinnati in December. The Pro Bowler has already been ruled out for the 2018 season. Still, Pittsburgh didn’t use the draft to search for Shazier’s possible replacement.
Maybe that’s because they already like what they have in Jon Bostic, who signed as a free agent in March. Bostic started 14 games for Indianapolis in 2017 and given his productivity and former seventh-round pick Tyler Matakevich’s potential, they didn’t feel a sense of urgency to find a marquee name.
Regardless of Colbert’s spin, inside linebacker remains a bit of a question mark. The Steelers have bodies but not much proven talent beyond Bostic and Vince Williams. Running back is still a bit of a question mark considering Le’Veon Bell’s uncertain future. He could be gone after next season if the team can’t sign him to a long-term deal and Stevan Ridley and James Conner are the two options behind him on the depth chart.