It was assumed the Steelers would go heavy on the defensive side of the ball in the first two days of the NFL Draft. But much like the assumptions about the first round, those were wrong.
A day after surprisingly selecting Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds with the 28th overall selection, all three picks in Friday’s second and third rounds were invested into offense, with Oklahoma State’s pitch-and-catch duo of James Washington at receiver and quarterback Mason Rudolph, then Western Michigan offensive tackle Chukwuma ‘Chuks’ Okorafor.
The second day had a distinct Cowboys feel to it.
— Cowboy Football (@CowboyFB) April 28, 2018
The Steelers selected Washington to fill the hole created by Thursday night’s trade of Martavis Bryant to the Raiders for a third-rounder. They then used that third-rounder, along with one of their two sevenths, to move up three spots in a trade with the Seahawks to select Rudolph.
“We were both just kind of in the air with all this training and things that are going on,” Washington said of himself and Rudolph. “We’ve said this is a big defensive draft. There are a bunch of defensive guys being taken, and I mean, there’s a place for everyone. Like we both said, wherever we go, we’re going to play to the best of our ability and give it our all.”
The selection of Rudolph, in particular, was interesting. The Steelers passed on Lamar Jackson of Louisville in the first round to select Edmunds, only to see Jackson go to the Ravens, who traded up into the first round with the Eagles to take their possible quarterback of the future with the 32nd pick.
Seeing Rudolph still available at the top of the third round, the Steelers jumped at the chance to acquire their own possible quarterback of the future. They seemed only too happy to get a chance at Rudolph, even though they now have four quarterbacks on the roster in Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones and Josh Dobbs, a fourth-round pick in 2017.
“There’s a lot to love about him and, you know, I think from a competition standpoint, now you are looking at our room being very exciting,” new offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “It’s awful hard and probably the last time it’s been like that, and I’m not talking about Ben Roethlisberger who’s a Hall of Fame quarterback. We’re excluding Ben, but he’s in the room. He’s our quarterback. But, I can remember a day where we had Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon and Ben Roethlisberger and there’s four quarterbacks in there that were all, at their own right, pretty well accomplished. That was exciting and that felt great as a coach. I know you can’t keep four, but any coach is going to say ‘give me as much talent as you possibly can.’ I am going to be excited as hell about this.”
But the question now is whether Roethlisberger will be excited about it.
The 36-year-old told teammates at the end of last season he intends to play three more seasons. But that came just one year after he told the team he was considering retirement.
How will Roethlisberger handle his potential replacement — something neither Jones nor Dobbs was considered — being on the roster?
“I keep my fingers crossed that he will play as long as, Lord willing, he’s healthy and that he wants to play,” Fichtner said. “That’d be awesome and that’d be great for us. It would be great for obviously me, because he’s a guy that will be awful hard to replace and if it takes three guys in competition to replace him some day, then so be it. And what a better position to be in right now and to keep developing quarterbacks?”
In Rudolph (6-5, 235 pounds), the Steelers get an experienced college quarterback, with 41 career starts, who finished with 13,618 career passing yards and 92 touchdown passes against just 29 interceptions. He averaged 324.2 passing yards per game in Oklahoma State’s spread offense, though he will now be forced to adjust to the Steelers’ pro-style scheme.
Despite that, he was the sixth quarterback selected, with the other five going in the first round.
“It’ll stick with me every minute of every hour from here going forward until the day I die,” Rudolph said of being passed over. “But yeah, it’s definitely like a burning fire. It began Thursday night and it will keep going, like I said, for a long time. But yeah, I definitely think I’m a great quarterback. I’m a little done with the comparison questions, but I definitely am confident in where I stacked up and felt that, you know, for whatever reason, I fell. God had a plan. I’m in a good situation now, and that’s the biggest thing. That’s what I’m taking away from it.”
In Washington, Rudolph will have a familiar face with whom to work. The two hooked up on a regular basis in four seasons at Oklahoma State, with Washington setting a school record with 4,472 yards and 39 touchdown catches. He averaged just over 20 yards per catch during his career, despite running just a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“He’s a 4.54 guy on every play,” said Fichtner, crediting Washington’s stamina. “We’ve had fast guys in the past and count how many times they’ve gotten open deep. There’s a lot of ways to do that: one by strength, one by technique and one by willingness and conditioning. He’s that kind of guy and you can’t deny what he’s done in college.”
At 5-11, 213 pounds, Washington is built more like JuJu Smith-Schuster than he is Bryant. But his ability to get deep despite a lack of burning straight-line speed is undeniable. And Fichtner feels he’s more than a competent replacement for Bryant, if not right away, then eventually, because of his ability to line up all over the offense.
— Cowboy Football (@CowboyFB) April 28, 2018
“It’s not just the ability to play one spot; it’s maybe to have the ability to be able to play two spots, maybe a third. It gets you on the field quicker, gets you in position to play more football, but it also gives you a chance that you are playing, say the Z-spot, let’s just pick a spot,” Fichtner said. “If he’s a Z and he is playing at three wide receivers, he has to be able to block on the Z-side, he’s got to be able to run deep routes on the Z-side, but he’s also got to be able to run individual-type routes and win.
“Those guys are hard to find. We’ve, in the past and over the years here, we’ve had guys from Mike Wallace to Nate Washington, fast guys that play one spot and they can do one thing, and hopefully in their time and their growth, might be able to do more than one thing and be more than potentially a one-trick opponent. This guy comes in with several tricks.”
In Okorafor, the Steelers added another offensive tackle to their roster, helping to replace Chris Hubbard, who left in free agency for Cleveland. Hubbard, the team’s swing tackle/guard on game days, started 10 games in 2017.
So even though all five starters return on the offensive line, the Steelers felt they had a need to add a body at that position, especially after not doing so in 2016.
“We all want a new guy to add to our room and add to the competition,” offensive line coach Mike Munchak said. “I think you hope that will happen during a draft but with the way a draft falls, you just never know because a lot of it depends on who’s available, how your board is working, what’s happening, what’s out there. You never know what to expect on drafts. To get someone, like I said, excited to do that. So, I’m glad it fell this way where we were able to do that where we could add to our room, because any time you have good competition it makes us all better.”
Now, the Steelers will likely do that on the defensive side of the ball throughout the day Saturday. Pittsburgh has three remaining picks in the final four rounds of the draft, which begins at noon — two in the fifth round and one in the seventh.
After an offensive day Friday, the team is likely to add at least one, and possibly two, linebackers and a defensive tackle to its roster.