Steelers draft brings team up to speed



Old and slow became a popular way to describe the Steelers the past few years as an aging core of veterans remained in prominent roles in the hope the team would compete for another Super Bowl. But after consecutive 8-8 seasons, general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin are reshaping the roster this offseason with an emphasis on accumulating fast players.

From free-agent acquisitions to the players drafted, the Steelers became faster at nearly every position since the 2013 season ended.

Linebackers coach Keith Butler noted how the defense has three players who run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds. The newest member of the defense is linebacker Ryan Shazier, the No. 15 overall pick who was timed in the 40 at the NFL combine at 4.38.

The other two speedsters play in the secondary. Free-agent safety Mike Mitchell once ran 4.36, and safety Shamarko Thomas, a fourth-round pick in 2013, runs 4.37.

None would win a race against third-round pick Dri Archer, a running back and kick returner, who ran the 40 in 4.26 seconds at the combine, the fastest time this year.

Add in fourth-round receiver Martavis Bryant (4.42), one of the 15 fastest players at the combine, and the Steelers could field a competitive Olympic relay team.

"I think you cover speed obviously, but it's football not a track meet," Tomlin said. "If you get a capable football player who happens to be fast, it's an asset. Speed players that we were able to acquire in this draft fit the bill in that regard. They are football players first who happen to be extremely fast."

Shazier was by far the fastest linebacker available in the draft. The Steelers will use him on the inside of their defense and have him run sideline to sideline to track down running backs and receivers.

"Sub 4.4 for a linebacker is moving," Butler said. "I like him a lot. You try to fit a need, and we thought with him we couldn't pass him up when he was there. He had that type of speed that you can't pass up. He's going to make us immediately faster on defense, which is going to help."

Archer will be an instrumental player on special teams, and the Steelers plan to use his versatility on offense. He played running back in college but also has skills that can translate to receiver.

"He's fast, yes, he's kick-return capable, all those things are obvious," Tomlin said. "This is a guy that is going to create some unique opportunities for us, from a package standpoint, in terms of getting him identified. Is he a running back? Is he a wideout? He's a splash playmaker. Regardless of position, he's a playmaker. He's a guy that gets yards in chunks and rings up the scoreboard."

Bryant is the deep threat the Steelers were without in 2013 after Mike Wallace departed in free agency. Bryant can stretch the field for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and is capable of making big plays. He set an NCAA record by averaging 22.2 yards per reception at Clemson.

"We feel like we got a guy to put opposite of Antonio Brown," receivers coach Richard Mann said. "He has excellent speed for a big guy."

If Bryant isn't ready to play right away, the Steelers have a backup plan in Darrius Heyward-Bey, a six-year veteran who was signed as a free agent earlier this year. He was clocked at 4.30 in the 40-yard dash when he came out of Maryland.

Heyward-Bey and Mitchell originally were drafted by the Oakland Raiders under late owner Al Davis, who valued speed above all else.

Only time will tell if faster is better for the Steelers, but it's hard not to notice the emphasis being placed on speed throughout the roster.

■ What: Steelers rookie minicamp/orientation.

■ When: Friday-Sunday.

■ Where: Steelers South Side practice facility.

■ Note: The camp is not open to the public.

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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