NFL: Steelers emphasize speed in draft
PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin insists his team went looking for contributors and not track stars during the NFL draft.
The fact the Pittsburgh Steelers picked up some of the quickest players on the board turned out to be a bonus. Now the group labeled “old” and “slow” by critics hardly looks like either.
Pittsburgh took four offensive players and five defensive players with its nine picks, including linebacker Ryan Shazier, running back Dri Archer and wide receiver Martavis Bryant. All three turned in blazing 40-yard dash times during the run-up to the draft. All three are expected to make an immediate impact on a team trying to return to the NFL elite after consecutive 8-8 seasons.
“They’re football players first who happen to be extremely fast,” Tomlin said.
Versatile, too. Secondary coach Carnell Lake joked that Shazier — whom the Steelers took with the 15th overall pick in the first round — could easily move from inside linebacker to safety if linebackers coach Keith Butler didn’t want the Ohio State star.
Archer ran for 1,429 yards at Kent State as a junior, averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall and is expected to be in the mix in both the passing and return game when training camp opens.
Though the 6-foot-4 Bryant finally gives quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the kind of big target that pays dividends near the goalline, Bryant also averaged nearly 20 yards per reception in 2013 while lining up next to Sammy Watkins at Clemson.
“I know that Big Ben knows how to get the ball down the field and they’ve had some great wide receivers over the years,” Bryant said. “He loves throwing the ball deep and I just want to come and help.”
Wide receivers coach Richard Mann believes Bryant could be a starter in the NFL, perhaps sooner rather than later. The team hasn’t had a true “big” receiver since Plaxico Burress left for the New York Giants in 2005. Antonio Brown set a team record for yards receiving in a season with 1,499 but at 5-10 isn’t the type to go up and get it. That won’t be a problem for Bryant.
“With the reach that he has, the arms, and the wingspan, I feel like we can get some cheap touchdowns down there,” Mann said. “He’s not afraid.”
Bryant’s selection led a busy final day of the draft for Pittsburgh, which had six picks over the final four rounds.
The Steelers finally addressed a need at cornerback by taking Shaquille Richardson out of Arizona in the fifth round. Richardson has a history with Lake, who recruited him to UCLA when Lake was an assistant with the Bruins.
Four years later they’re reunited, with Lake hoping the 6-foot Richardson can provide an aging secondary with a physical presence.
“He gives us good size out there and somebody that has the ability to put a lot of pressure on tall receivers that have been drafted lately in the last few years,” Lake said.
Pittsburgh grabbed Vanderbilt offensive lineman Wesley Johnson with a compensatory pick in the fifth round. Johnson started more than 50 games for the Commodores and ended up playing four of the five positions along the line.
He’ll be asked to do the same for the Steelers, who have been forced to shuffle the line around in each of the last three seasons due to injuries.
The Steelers took linebacker Jordan Zumwalt out of UCLA with their first pick in the sixth round then grabbed massive nose tackle Daniel McCullers from Tennessee with their second pick in the sixth.
General manager Kevin Colbert described the 6-foot-7, 352-pound McCullers as “an obstruction.” Though McCullers will likely shed some weight before camp starts, the player nicknamed “Shade Tree” during his time with the Volunteers understands his job is to take up as much space as possible.
“I feel like I can be a dominant player if I just get in the best shape possible,” McCullers said.
McCullers and Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame — taken by the Steelers in the second round — will get a chance to prove themselves in a group marked by free agency departures.
Pittsburgh took tight end Rob Blanchflower of Massachusetts with its final pick. Like the rest of his brethren, the 6-4, 256-pound Blanchflower isn’t one-dimensional. Tight ends coach James Daniel praised Blanchflower for his ability to excel in both blocking and receiving at a position that has seen more specialization in recent years.
That’s not the case with the Steelers, who are near the end of a massive roster overhaul. Only a handful of players remain from the team’s last Super Bowl win in 2009. Tomlin and Colbert hope the work they did over three frantic days helped reset the foundation for another long run of success.
“If you look at the men that we had an opportunity to select this weekend, their size, their speed, their versatility, obviously those are the things we value,” Tomlin said. “We buy into the upside of these young men and we look forward to getting down to business and putting them in the group that’s already here.”