It feels like, more than usual anyway, the Pittsburgh Steelers have heightened their “high character” approach over the last few draft classes. That should be another one of the boxes a draft pick, any draft pick, have to check. Maybe that means taking a highly talented player off the board but in light of Reuben Foster’s situation, it’s a smart move.
One of the most talented players in last year’s draft, Foster slid all the way to the 31st pick over those concerns. An altercation with a hospital worker sent him home from the Combine and a diluted urine sample caused him to fail a drug test. You know the rest of the story, most recently, the three felonies he’s facing after allegedly hitting his girlfriend “eight to ten” times, rupturing her eardrum. He’s facing serious legal problems, forget everything about football, and if convicted, will spend a long time behind bars.
Now, I’m not going to pretend the Steelers are the epitome of a squeaky clean organization. They have players with their fair share of history, baggage, so I’m not trying to paint this team as holier than thou. But the approach has shifted even more than the norm over the past two draft classes both in their actions and Kevin Colbert’s words.
It’s that “heart and smarts” approach that’s driven these classes. That’s how they described T.J. Watt last year.
“Hearts and smarts,” Mike Tomlin said via The Trib. “A lot of these guys excel in those areas. They display a tremendous passion for the game in their play. They are smart, accomplished young men, not only in the game of football, but outside the game of football.”
It’s partially why the team passed on Foster, written about right after the draft, and now clearly, the correct choice.
The rest of the class followed suit. JuJu Smith-Schuster; no one has a bad thing to say about him. James Conner in the third – that’s self-explanatory. Cam Sutton impressed the team with his knowledge of the defense to become their other third round pick. Josh Dobbs could work for NASA and the rest of the picks were completely clean.
Ditto with 2016. Say what you will about the talent but Artie Burns is extremely high character with an inspiring backstory, becoming the leader in that household to support his younger brothers.
“I give the kid credit for doing what he’s doing and putting his career aside because he’s going to take care of his family first and foremost,” Colbert said after selecting him. “I think that says a lot about his character.”
Sean Davis was lauded for his intelligence on and off the field. Javon Hargrave, Jerald Hawkins, all the way down to Tyler Matakevich, no issues whatsoever.
Honestly, and I’m asking out loud here, who was the last “character risk” the team drafted? Someone where you didn’t question if they had the talent on the field but the ability to keep their nose clean off of it? Probably Martavis Bryant in 2014, meaning they’ve gone three draft classes with that “character first” focus.
It feels like a shift from even semi-recent history. In 2013, Colbert made the headlines for basically advocating taking guys with character red flags.
“Going forward, does that mean that you are not going to look at guys who have risk?” No, I think that is unrealistic because a lot of the guys in the draft pool do have character challenges…when we do assume the risk, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn‘t. Obviously, we had two cases this year that didn‘t work for us and that falls on me because I am the guy who said we can assume this risk.”
Colbert is referring to Alameda Ta’amu and Chris Rainey, two mid-round picks who had those concerns they couldn’t shake in the NFL. There was also Mike Adams, at one time off the Steelers’ board, who didn’t work out either.
This is just speculation from me but maybe getting burned by all that has created a shift in philosophy. It’s certainly something they’ve been preaching in recent draft classes and the actions reflect it. Ditto with free agency. Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were far from the most athletic players available but well-known for their leadership and high character.
Maybe it doesn’t result in elite draft classes. But it definitely creates a high floor and a group of hard workers who are going to maximize their talent. Sure sounds like a Steeler to me.