When The NFL Draft Is National News, How Popular Is This Sport?

Steeler Fans Anticipate Quiet Draft With Big Bang

Friday, April 25, 2008
By David Johnston
Steelers Fever Columnist
Edited by John Smathers


This Saturday begins the process that is the 2008 NFL Draft. It is a process that is the big league equivalent of the two best athletes you knew growing up standing a few feet apart on the sideline and pointing at the other kids picking the teams for recess, everyone else standing there praying they weren't the last one picked.

NFL DraftFor the NFL there are 32 teams with armies of coaches, scouts, analysts, and players providing input. You'd think there'd be no more surprises these days. Outside the league this may be the most overanalyzed activity in sport. There are multiple mock drafts, meticulous examination of college players coming out, teams and their needs, pre-draft shows, nationally-televised draft coverage and endless discussions of who will go where and when. It sure is a lot of fun.

Other professional leagues in the United States have media hype and attention for their drafts. The NBA has its lottery, and their draft is much faster and more efficient than the NFL, but with only five starters on the court there are fewer players and strategies to consider. But even with the quicker pace and better chance of a draft pick making an immediate impact, the NBA draft doesn't get the attention the NFL draft gets.

And MLB has a draft, but it seems secretive and arcane like some kind of pagan ritual held deep in the woods under a full moon. Players chosen, from college, from foreign leagues, minor league contracts, development players, trades, etc. And then you don't see these guys for years sometimes. Baseball is a great sport, but their draft is truly for the rabid hard-core maniacs of the bat and glove.

This weekend, however, thousands will descend on New York to watch a crowded room full of old men in suits talk about the young men in suits as their names are called off from behind a podium.

And millions of others will gather in living rooms and huddle around computers at actual football draft parties (ever been to one? I have), listening with breath held and fingers crossed for their team to announce the next impact player. And after the name is announced joyous celebration on par with scoring Super Bowl touchdowns will occur. Or, if you're a Raiders fan, cursing, spitting, and knocking a bowl of chips to the floor may be your response.

For Steelers fans draft weekend is a big deal, but maybe not as big a deal as it is for other teams and their fans. The Steelers approach the draft like they approach most business decisions concerning the team: there is a lot of preparation, very little shuffling and almost no chance of a ridiculous Ricky Williams or Herschel Walker draft deal.

Usually if a Steelers draft becomes exciting something has gone terribly wrong.

Only twice in the last few years have the Steelers traded up in the first round to grab their player. In 2006 the Steelers moved up to pick 25 in the first round and grabbed Ohio State wide receiver Santonio Holmes. In 2003 the Steelers moved all the way up to pick 16 to select Troy Polamalu.

It took a year, but Polamalu became the heart of the defense and is considered among the top safeties in the league. Moving up to grab him looks like a great move five years later.

Holmes may be the heir apparent to Hines Ward, and he's proving to be an excellent pick up as well.

A quick look at the last decade of Steelers drafts only yields three true busts. I'm only looking at players drafted in the first three rounds going back to 1999. These three stand out:

1999
First-round pick of wide receiver Troy Edwards

2001
Third-round pick of offensive tackle Mathias Nkwenti

2003
Second-round pick of defensive end/linebacker Alonzo Jackson

If a player is drafted in the first three rounds in today's NFL of salary caps and free agency that player is expected to be ready to play, especially first-rounders. None of the players listed above did anything with the Steelers and did very little after leaving Pittsburgh.

Otherwise, the last decade of draft selections has been pretty strong for the Steelers. It's still too soon to know for sure about the 2007 draft class, and maybe even the 2006 draft class, but usually the Steelers get good production out of their draft selections.

The 2008 draft will have to be especially good though. The Steelers only have six picks, having received zero additional compensatory picks and giving their seventh rounder away for return specialist Allen Rossum, who is now with San Francisco.

Six picks isn't a whole lot. The Steelers don't have any glaring needs, but they have a lot of questions. Will the offensive line rise to the challenge of losing Alan Faneca and gel? Will "Fast" Willie Parker return to his speedy form? Will any of the defensive line starters go down to injury?

My prediction for the first round? A sack specialist defensive end. Not a project outside linebacker, but an actual hand-on-the-ground end who will get after the quarterback. Coach Tomlin has been hinting at this recently.

The elite offensive linemen will be long gone by pick 23, and the Steelers don't have the extra picks they've had in the past to offer to other teams to move up. I say this with the knowledge that the Dolphins are taking Jake Long from Michigan with the first overall pick. That will start a run on the good offensive linemen.

This draft is deep in running backs so the Steelers will look at round two or three for a ball carrier. Plus, no way Rashard Mendenhall, Felix Jones, or Jonathan Stewart fall to pick 23 (though if one of them is there look for the Steelers to take their first running back in the first round since Tim Worley).

The draft is overanalyzed, scrutinized and hyped from every angle. Steelers fans and Web sites are as guilty of this as the other 31 franchises. And I'll be watching from my computer Saturday wondering just which way the Steelers will go, especially in the first round.