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Looking Back: Thoughts on Draft Weekend

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Kevin Colbert called the Steelers’ drafting of Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward “a special moment for this organization.” Hmm… Right up there with any of the six Super Bowl championships? Wasn’t picking Joe Greene in 1969 special? Terry Bradshaw, a year later?

All those moments were uniquely vital to keeping the Steelers among the elite teams in the NFL for more than four decades.

Is Heyward that good?

Colbert acted like a man who couldn’t believe his good fortune. Indeed, the Steelers called the name in a flash when their turn to pick arrived, making Heyward the 31st selection in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Smiles and pats on the back all around.

Nice, but Ike Taylor’s grin was probably wider.

Taylor, whose is eagerly awaiting his shot at free agency, couldn’t have been happier that the Steelers waited until the third and fourth rounds to pluck two young cornerbacks.

His leverage in future contract negotiations with the Steelers soared because, uh, they don’t have anyone else. William Gay? Bryant McFadden? Keenan Lewis?

Please!

But the purpose here is not to criticize the Steelers’ 2011 draft. A team that has not missed on even one first-round choice since Colbert grabbed the throttle in 2000 was true to its convictions throughout the three-day process.

The Steelers drafted players from major colleges—Heyward, Florida offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert, Texas cornerback Curtis Brown, Nebraska guard Keith Williams and Texas Tech running back Baron Batch—because that’s where the best ones are groomed.

They didn’t reach for a cornerback just because they needed two. They took the best player on their board, even though he’s a defensive end and they drafted another one of those only two years ago.

In case you haven’t noticed, big men win football games.

There were 10 cornerbacks picked before the Steelers took Brown at No. 95, and the Steelers could have had seven. But they liked Heyward and second-round choice Gilbert better.

Good job. There’s a reason you hold all those pre-draft meetings.

Still, for the immediate future, coach Mike Tomlin may not be crazy about lining up McFadden and Brown at cornerback next season while the Baltimore Ravens trot out a high-priced free agent named Taylor on the other side of the field.

Other draft thoughts and tidbits:

  • Did you notice a trend among Steelers draft choices? Heyward, 46 starts; Gilbert, two-year starter; Brown, 27 starts; Williams 34; Batch, three consecutive seasons of more than 1,000 all-purpose yards. These guys made the most of their college experiences.
  • Steelers’ draft trivia: Brown was the nation’s 21st-best overall prospect and second-best cornerback in 2007 when he came out Gilmer (Texas) High School.
  • One more: Cornerback Cortez Allen of The Citadel, the Steelers’ fourth-round pick, is the only player in FCS history to return an interception for a touchdown on the first play of the first game of a season.
  • OK, this is the last one: The Steelers drafted no underclassmen, one of six teams to ignore that group of players.

Around the league:

  • The Jacksonville Jaguars had a strange draft (not necessarily a bad one), giving their second-round pick to the Washington Redskins to take Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert at No. 10, then filling out a slim five-player class with players from Lehigh, Mount Union, Wyoming and Middle Tennessee.
  • Go ahead, Steelers fan: Hate New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick if it makes you feel better. But the man knows the draft. Partially through clever trading up and down the board, the Patriots took Colorado offensive tackle Nate Solder with the 17th pick in the first round, Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling at No. 33 and running backs Shane Vareen of California in the second and Stevan Ridley of LSU in the third – before snatching a steal at No. 74, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett. They also got the New Orleans Saints’ No. 1 next year.
  • Another major heist: Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith at No. 27 by the Baltimore Ravens.
  • The Ravens needed wide receivers, and they got two – Maryland’s Torrey Smith (58) and Indiana’s Tandon Doss (123). Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Doss was quarterback Joe Flacco’s idea.
  • Most people raised an eyebrow when the Minnesota Vikings took Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder at No. 12 when he may have been available later. But perhaps they couldn’t trade back. And what if they waited until the second round and he was gone? This way, they get Ponder and Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph, their second-rounder. Don’t even think it: The Vikings have lost Brett Favre’s number.
  • Experts insist using any pick before the sixth round on a kicker is a waste, but the Philadelphia Eagles took Nebraska’s Alex Henery in the fourth. For good reason. David Akers will be 37 this year, they were saving their first fifth-rounder for Pitt running back Dion Lewis and waiting any longer than that was risky. Bottom line: If you want a guy, take him.
  • Of the 32 first-round picks, 20 were linemen or quarterbacks. Why? They are the most important people on the field.
  • Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones needs to be great. The Atlanta Falcons traded five picks to the Cleveland Browns to get him.
  • Two teams with top picks who stand out: the Cincinnati Bengals getting Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green and TCU quarterback Andy Dalton at Nos. 4 and 34; the Saints netting California defensive end Cameron Jordan, Alabama running back Mark Ingram and Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson at 24, 28 and 72.
  • Notre Dame had as many players drafted as Yale (one); Pitt as many as Ohio State (five).
  • North Carolina (nine) and Miami (eight) had only five fewer than the entire Big East (22).
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