During the first two days of the NFL draft, the Steelers did a nice job rallying from their awful start to the offseason. In the first round, they took Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who is considered the best pass rusher in the draft. In the second, they took Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell, who is thought by many to be one of the top two at his position. In the third, they took Oregon State wide receiver Markus Wheaton, who adds much-needed depth after the free-agent loss of Mike Wallace. All three are excellent picks, considering the circumstances. The Steelers coaches sure talked 'em up. All three picks sound like they have a chance to be great on NFL lawns across the country.
It's just a shame the Steelers dug themselves such a hole before the draft.
It didn't have to be nearly so deep.
It all goes back to the botched negotiations with linebacker James Harrison. Both sides allowed personal feelings to get in the way of a business deal that would have benefited each party. First, it was Harrison, who refused to take a significant pay cut that the Steelers needed to get under the salary cap. Then, it was the team that refused to talk to Harrison again after it became clear he had misread his value on the open market. As a result, Harrison took less money to sign with the Cincinnati Bengals than he would have received to stay with the Steelers. The Steelers had to take Jones No. 1 to fill their most glaring need instead of using that pick on another great player.
Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, anyone?
You can't tell me the Steelers wouldn't be better off with Harrison and Eifert than they are with just Jones. The Bengals ended up with both players, getting Eifert Thursday four selections after Jones went. That means the Steelers not only didn't add Eifert as a receiving threat for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but they also must cover him twice a season.
Two-tight end offenses are the rage in the NFL. A player such as Eifert, who can line up tight and block or split out and catch passes, is a nightmare because of the mismatches he creates with linebackers and safeties. It would have been fun to see the damage Roethlisberger could have done with Eifert and Heath Miller, the team's MVP last season, although Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said he doesn't expect Miller to be ready for the start of next season because of major knee surgery in December.
Certainly, adding Eifert would have eased Roethlisberger's pain in losing Wallace, who signed a five-year, $60 million contract in March with the Miami Dolphins. "I'm really going to miss Mike," Roethlisberger said earlier this month. "On the field, he was really something special. People don't realize how important it is to have a guy with his ability."
Don't blame the Steelers for losing Wallace. The Dolphins' offer made it impossible for him to stay. But the team could have kept Harrison. The coaches wanted him and think he still has plenty left. The dollars could have been worked out if not for the personal feelings. That's the shame here.
But the Steelers did bounce back strong. Colbert said he never counts on any draft pick coming in and making an immediate impact, but it's easy to think Jones could get significant playing time as a rookie. The team's best outside linebacker, LaMarr Woodley, has been injury-prone. Harrison's replacement, Jason Worilds, has been an underachiever. Talk about a mistake. In 2010, the Steelers took Worilds in the second round instead of Penn State linebacker Sean Lee, who has become a star with the Dallas Cowboys.
It's even easier to imagine Bell emerging as a starter, if not out of training camp, then early in the season. Colbert made no secret the running backs weren't good enough last season -- and that was before Rashard Mendenhall signed with Arizona. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are looked at as complementary backs. Former Pitt star LaRod Stephens-Howling, signed Friday as a free agent, is more of a kick-return specialist.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said Bell has "Eddie George physical traits. ... He looks like a workhorse back. He's not a guy that you'd shy away from giving it to him 30 times a game."
Haley also gushed about Bell's ability to catch passes.
"I think it puts us back in a place where we can have a chance to run the ball and throw the ball out of the backfield successfully. I expect him to get into the mix and be a factor."
The Steelers will make five more picks today. They still are playing catch-up, not just because of the loss of Harrison, but because of the loss of six other starters from a disappointing 8-8 team. Colbert said that's a good thing. We'll see.
The Steelers need at least one safety because Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark could be entering their final season. They need an inside linebacker, a position where they have little depth after missing out on Lee and because Sean Spence, their No. 3 pick last year, went down with a gruesome knee injury last summer and might never play. They could use another wide receiver. Another defensive lineman wouldn't hurt.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said not to judge the team now, but rather wait until September when the games start to count. That's fair. But so is this: Tomlin, Colbert and the Steelers still have plenty of work to do.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.