Kevin Colbert has a simple philosophy when drafting in the first round, with the Pittsburgh general manager having repeatedly said over the years that the Steelers’ brass places the most value on actual gametape, instead of 40-yard-dash times or other physical measurements.
That strategy has served Pittsburgh well in the Colbert era as no team in the NFL carries a better track record of first-round success, starting with the selection of Plaxico Burress in his first draft as general manager in 2000.
Accordingly, it is not surprising that Pittsburgh’s most disappointing first-round pick of the Colbert era was probably current defensive end Ziggy Hood, who was a good but not great player who only made all-Big 12 once at Missouri. More concerning was that Hood’s ability to play the 3-4 defensive end position was based on a projected position switch and that he was not needed in the starting lineup until his third season with the Steelers.
None of those negative indicators would hold true for Jarvis Jones if the superstar Georgia outside linebacker was available at pick No. 17 in the first round of the NFL Draft this Thursday.
Despite an overload of national media hype for overrated Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o – which, upon reflection, was actually more deserved than the unchecked stories on his deceased, hardluck girlfriend – Jones was simply the best defensive player in the country over the last two years, while competing in what is clearly the top conference in college football.
Playing outside linebacker in the Bulldogs’ NFL-style 3-4 defense, Jones led all of major-college football in sacks (28) and tackles for loss (44) in his two seasons at Georgia, earning consensus All-America honors both years. Jones is the quintessential playmaker, who repeatedly came through (e.g., stripped fumble to save win against Florida, interception to thwart momentum at Missouri, etc.) at the most opportune times for his defense. This led to Jones being rated as the No. 1 overall prospect in the draft as late as December by the likes of both Mel Kiper and Gil Brandt.
The Steelers defense is predicated on its outside linebackers wreaking havoc through sacks, pressures and game-changing plays, all of which were missing last season despite Pittsburgh paying its standout outside linebackers, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, higher combined salaries than any starting outside linebacker pair in the NFL.
But a weakness last season became much worse this offseason when Harrison – a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year and the team’s leader in sacks for 5 of the past 6 seasons – was released in a salary-cap purge. Whereas they had similar numbers since 2008, Harrison was a far more relentless, consistent pass rusher than Woodley.
Apparently the Steelers’ will now rely on often-injured Jason Worilds to replace Harrison. Of course if Worilds has a good season and manages to stay consistently healthy (something he has rarely done in seven seasons of professional and college football), the speedy and physically-talented Worilds would likely be too costly for the cap-strapped Steelers to keep for the long-term, since he will be an unrestricted free agent after 2013.
STEELERS DO NOT PHILOSOPHICALLY TAKE BPA IN FIRST ROUND
Let’s clear up misconceptions about another cliché Colbert likes to repeat, although this one is bunk. The Steelers generally do not take the “Best Player Available” on their board in the first round unless that player also fills a major need at a desired position despite every member of the coaching staff and front office alleging that this is the philosophy they follow.
The Steelers needed immediately help at receiver in 2000, nose tackle in 2001, safety in 2003, tight end in 2005, receiver in 2006 and offensive guard in 2012. In fact, in several of those years (e.g., 2001, 2003, 2006) the position listed above was without question Pittsburgh’s No. 1 draft need, and an area where an immediate contribution was needed.
Drafting for need, Colbert selected Plaxico Burress, Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu (on a trade-up), Health Miller, Santonio Holmes (on a trade-up) and David DeCastro in the first round, respectively. While the jury remains out on DeCastro, the rest were astute choices who helped Pittsburgh win two Super Bowls, play in a third and advance to five AFC championship games in the past 12 seasons.
Steelers’ first-round picks under Colbert, in contrast, were collectively less successful when drafted at positions where there was not immediate need, such as selecting running back Rashard Mendenhall in 2008 (despite Willie Parker finishing second in the AFC in rushing in 2007 and signed for the long-term at that time), Hood in 2009 (did not become a regular starter entering a season until 2012) and fellow defensive end Cameron Heyward in 2011 (will likely not enter a season as a projected starter until 2014, his final year before free agency).
In an era where most players become unrestricted free agents after four years, it is an imprudent strategy to draft a first-round player at any position – with the occasional exception of quarterback – who you do not project to start as a rookie.
Moreover, it is inexcusable to draft any player in the first round who you do not foresee as being favored to start by year No. 2. That same philosophy should basically hold true for round No. 2, with the exception of taking a No. 2 running back, No. 3 receiver or No. 3 cornerback, all of whom would play near starter’s minutes.
But Jones would fill the best of both categories. He is the pass rusher the Steelers need immediately, would at worst be the No. 3 outside linebacker as a rookie behind Woodley and Worilds (both of whom are injury-prone) and would be slated to start in 2014, enabling the cap-strapped Steelers to save precious space by allowing Worilds to leave via unrestricted free agency.
Pittsburgh’s defense led the NFL in total defense (yards per game) each of the last two seasons. But no expert thought that Pittsburgh had the league’s best defense either year. The team’s vaunted pass rush has dwindled, tying the Ravens and Pats for 15th in the NFL with 37 sacks in 2012 after finishing 17th in 2011 with 35. But just 3 years ago, the Steelers led the NFL with 48 regular-season sacks. Not coincidentally that was also the last time Pittsburgh went to the Super Bowl.
Accordingly, ESPN ranked outside linebacker as the Steelers’ No. 1 draft need, despite the team’s lack of talent or any of its key players signed beyond 2013 at both running back and receiver, with the exception of wide out Antonio Brown.
Three months ago, though, the notion of Jones being available when the Steelers’ select would have been laughed off by any remotely knowledgeable draft fan. Whereas a slight majority of draft prognosticators still have Jones going off the board somewhere between the Jets’ ninth pick overall and the Saints at No. 15 overall, he is a popular choice for the Steelers in the mocks where Jones remains available for the 17th pick overall.
ESPN’s Todd McShay and the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock both have Jones going to the Steelers at No. 17 in their final mock drafts, while insiders such as Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Steelers beat reporter Ed Bouchette, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport and Sports Illustrated’s Peter King all reported that the Steelers would likely nab Jones if he is available when they are on the clock in round No. 1.
Jones, himself, guaranteed that he will be drafted no later than No. 17 overall by the Steelers. However, amongst Steelers message boards, a backlash by a slight majority of active posters has grown against selecting Jones in the first round. The more knowledgeable amongst these opponents have cited several logical reasons, all of which are why Jones’ stock has fallen among NFL scouts to the point that the most productive defensive player in major college football over the past two seasons could be available with the 17th overall pick.
Among the marks against Jones:
- He was diagnosed with spinal stenosis after his freshman season at Southern Cal, whose doctors recommended he retire from the sport. Jones, however, passed physicals at all schools he visited before choosing the home-state Bulldogs and has reportedly been cleared by most NFL medical staffs. His only injuries at Georgia where minor in nature (e.g., hamstring, groin) and never resulted in his missing an SEC or potentially competitive game.
- Jones will turn 24 during the 2013 season. He would be the oldest Steelers’ first-round pick since Hampton in 2001. Colbert has shown a preference toward taking younger players in the first round due to their greater upside.
- After deciding not to work out at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, Jones had a horrible pro day at Georgia, running 4.92 seconds in the 40-yard dash despite weighing just 245 pounds.
The first two are strong reasons to avoid taking Jones. But “draftniks” and people who rarely – if at all – watched him play were mainly influenced by the 40 time. Fortunately, the Steelers have historically not placed as much stock in great workout numbers or the likes of Miller, Woodley and another very productive Georgia star who ran a slow 40, Hines Ward, would not have become Pro Bowl contributors and locker-room leaders in Pittsburgh. Please note that Jones was a team captain and one of the only Georgia prospects in this draft with no off-field transgressions.
More important, Jones’ tape shows how dominant he was against top competition. Alabama coach Nick Saban said his staff was forced to alter their gameplan at halftime, because his superstar-laden offensive line (which included two future first-round picks at tackle in D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kouandijo) could not block Jones in the SEC Championship Game. Jones still recorded 6 tackles, 3 for loss, 2 sacks and forced a fumble despite Georgia falling 4 yards short of essentially winning a national title in a 32-28 loss to the Crimson Tide.
Florida left tackle Xavier Nixon is projected as a mid-round pick in this draft. Nixon, though, might be a 2nd-round pick if he had not been destroyed by Jones each of the last two years. In helping Georgia win consecutive game against the Gators for the first time since 1989 and before the return of Steve Spurrier to Gainesville, Jones recorded a combined 16 solo tackles, 7 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 2 recovered fumbles against Florida.
In contrast, go watch all 14 games Georgia played last season like I did and you will see very few plays made by workout warrior Cornelius Washington, who split time between defensive end and outside linebacker as a senior after starting at outside linebacker as a junior.
The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Washington was recently projected as the Steelers’ second-round pick by Kiper, in part due to his 4.48-second 40-yard-dash time and startling 36 bench-press reps of 225 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine.
For best body on the beach or to run to third leg in a 4X100 relay, Washington’s your man. But on tape, Jones is faster in cleats, more physical, and without question the more productive and more instinctual playmaker. There is no prospect in this NFL Draft listed as a realistic first-round possibility who would be a better Steelers’ pick and fit than Jones.
“I keep looking at Jarvis Jones on tape, and I don’t care as much about the potential medical issues, I don’t care that he ran 4.9,” Mike Mayock wrote for his last mock draft on NFL.com. “This kid plays football. He’s explosive. He’s a quick-twitch guy in short areas, and he reminds me a little bit of a LaMarr Woodley or a James Harrison. I just think he fits what Pittsburgh does.”
Finally, check out my offensive and defensive draft positional analyses for detailed explanations why Jones would be a more desired initial pick than other realistic Pittsburgh first-round possibilities. But here are a snapshot of reasons:
WR Tavon Austin – Tremendous, productive, small player, but too similar to Antonio Brown.
WR Cordarelle Patterson – Raw, boom-bust type who is too much of a risk at No. 17 in a draft highlighted by solid value at receiver in rounds 2-3.
TE Tyler Eifert – Great, all-around player will who will be a solid pro. But a No. 2 tight end is a luxury first-round pick for a team that must replace six starters and will have more key openings before 2014.
OG Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper – After drafting four players in the first two rounds over the past three years and re-signing guard Ramon Foster to a 3-year contract this offseason, the Steelers’ offensive line is set for the next 2 years. Their concerns are depth at tackle and protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside, neither of which would be answered by selecting a first-round guard for a second consecutive season.
S Kenny Vaccaro – A cover-2 safety who does not fit the Steelers’ scheme. Plus, this draft is loaded with safeties in every round.
CB Xavier Rhodes – Corner is not an immediate need, the Steelers do not generally address corner in the first round and No. 17 may be a little high for Rhodes.
Jones should be taken at No. 17 on the board. Otherwise, the Steelers should trade down to pick up extra picks even if that means taking 50-100 points lower than the trade-value chart because more teams will try to move down than up in the first round tomorrow night.