No linebackers, but Steelers bullish on offense-heavy draft
The Pittsburgh Steelers focused on versatility in the NFL draft. The Steelers picked up seven players over the weekend, and nearly all of them are capable of filling more than one role with the team. The Steelers declined to speculate about the long-term future of quarterback Mason Rudolph. Pittsburgh traded up to land Rudolph in the third round. Only time will tell if Rudolph becomes the heir apparent to two-time Pro Bowler Ben Roethlisberger.
By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
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.”
HEIR APPARENT? 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.
IMMEDIATE IMPACT: 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.”
SAFETY DANCE: 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.
WHAT’S INSIDE: 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.
STILL NEED: 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.
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For Giants, the expectations of Saquon Barkley rise to role model
By Tom Rock
Pat Shurmur welcomed Saquon Barkley to the team the same way he intends to do so for all of the rookies selected in the draft and signed as free agents in the coming days and weeks.
“I gave him that ‘here’s your locker, here’s your helmet, here’s the field’ speech,” Shurmur said of laying out the basics. “He’s going to get indoctrinated like any rookie and we’re going to treat him like any rookie coming to our organization.”
That may be the case on the field and in the locker room, and the Giants certainly will try their hardest to treat Barkley like everyone else. But in the broader scope of the Saquon Selection, they acquired more than just a running back they hope can help them win games.
They acquired a brand. A potential face of the team. A possible future face of the NFL. Someone they hope will not only restore the best winning traditions of the organization but carry a much larger, perhaps much more important burden.
“He’s a role model,” Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said. “I think he’s going to be a role model for his generation.”
Whoa. Let that resonate a moment.
“It’s a lot of responsibility to ask a 21-year-old to be a role model, and I’m not suggesting he needs to take that responsibility,” Tisch continued. “But I think because of who he is and the team he’s playing for, he’s going to probably accept that responsibility and I think he’s going to be extremely impressive.”
That’s why Saturday’s introductory news conference felt more like a coronation. The only thing it lacked was the chiming of bells and co-owner John Mara placing the helmet on Barkley’s head. (Mara, by the way, chose to hover in the background and declined to come forward for photos, perhaps wary of things getting too big too quickly.)
Tisch had no such qualms, sitting front and center for Barkley’s event.
“If you listened to him this morning he seems so balanced and focused, mature,” Tisch gushed. “His priorities seem very, very in place, very appropriate. Very respectful. Makes references to his parents and his family … That’s a young guy who has grown up in a very functional environment and I think it’s going to translate to the Giants, especially in the locker room. Even as a 21-year-old rookie, his influence in the locker room is going to be very impressive.”
Everyone expects it to be. Including Barkley.
“That’s something that I feel like in college my freshman year I didn’t do,” Barkley said. “I didn’t step up to the challenge. I didn’t speak enough. I kind of sat back and let the (Christian Hackenbergs) and the (Anthony Zettels) of the world speak. I didn’t take that approach when at that time, looking back on it, I definitely could have helped.”
It’s not a mistake he intends to make again.
As for being the face of the fill-in-the-blank, Barkley said he’s not focusing on that.
“I know that’s been said about me and that’s been said about me in college at Penn State,” he said. “I really never view myself as that … The way that I kind of handle that is just continue to stay focused on the sport and continue to stay focused on football and focus on my family and the things that get you there. The face of the franchise? When you have success, that tag comes along (with it). That’s kind of how I view it … That’s not something that I’m really looking forward to being. But if that happens, God willing, I have a lot of success and that comes with the territory, then so be it.”
That said, Barkley couldn’t help but notice during his brief time in the Giants’ facility how they treat their heroes. How you can’t walk down a hallway without seeing a picture of an all-time great. How the locker room is literally ringed with the names of some Hall of Famers. How the trophies and rings and game balls sit in cases throughout the building.
And he couldn’t help imagining his place among them one day.
“You want to be great and, obviously, it’s not going to happen in one day,” Barkley said. “You’ve got to work for it and it’s going to take a long road and you’ve got to take it step by step.”
Saturday was one of the earliest of those steps, and one Barkley strode with ease.
The Giants already have two players of such stardom that they are on a first-name basis with the public: Eli and Odell. Now they have a Saquon. The two others were first-round picks like Barkley, but neither came into the NFL with this kind of trumpeting. Manning was more Peyton’s little brother and Beckham’s celebrity didn’t take off until his one-handed catch.
Barkley is different.
“He’s coming here a known, not an unknown,” Tisch said.
Nor has a running back often been one of the league’s most prominent figures. Certainly its’ been a while since a Giants running back has been. Maybe not since Frank Gifford was playing in the 1950s has one captured the type of cultural status that goes beyond football fans which Barkley may be on the verge of.
Tisch, who is also an Oscar-winning movie producer, knows stars. And he thinks Barkley “absolutely” has the makings of one.
“He’s charismatic, unbelievably gifted as an athlete,” Tisch said. “I think he really knows himself. His poise is very impressive. I think the value he’s going to bring to the Giants on the field and in the locker room is fantastic.”
He compared Barkley to actor Donald Glover.
“Glover has the world in front of him and Saquon has the sports world in front of him,” Tisch said.
Standing behind the podium on Saturday, looking out at the cameras from his new platform, Barkley could see all of it. The fame, the influence, the impact. And he knows, too, that none of it will be attainable if he doesn’t produce. That’s why, he said, his first priority is football. As Shurmur would say: His locker, his helmet, the field.
“The goal and the dream is to win championships and be a dominant player,” Barkley said. “I feel like I want to get to the point where I’m a dominant player in the league and I have that presence … Having that impact in the game is what I look forward to and that’s why I think I was brought here, in my opinion.”
Well, that’s certainly part of it.
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