While the Pittsburgh Steelers will maintain that they have and always will put character toward the forefront of their evaluations, their 2019 NFL Draft class seemed to be more character-driven than it might typically be. The majority of their draft selections were highly prominent leaders within their programs, or even participants in a culture change within that school.
Many will see this as a response to their recent experiences working with and then suddenly not working with former All-Pros, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown, who are now members of the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders, respectively.
While that likely helped to color their thoughts in setting up their draft board, according to General Manager Kevin Colbert, they had another group of players on their mind that helped to shape their focus this year.
“The frame of reference that we used this year, particularly, was looking back on the draft that got us T.J. [Watt] and JuJu [Smith-Schuster] and James Conner”, he told The Fan. “None of those were the biggest, fastest. They were good football players that loved playing the game, and they played on the team aspect, so we reminded ourselves, ‘listen, if it’s close, let’s take those types of guys’”.
While Watt tested out very well, Smith-Schuster and Conner certainly didn’t represent superior modern-day athleticism, particularly in the speed department, during their Combine performances, but neither of them have really displayed much issue in creating explosive plays. It doesn’t hurt that all three of them made the Pro Bowl last season.
“What we talked about is sometimes when players grow into stars, which you hope they do, sometimes they lose focus of what needs to be done from a team standpoint”, he said in referring to the maturation of their star players. “And I think we always try to emphasize that, and when we have decisions we had to make, we always talked, if we have two players that are comparable, who loves football, and who’s gonna be the best team guy, and we would always side to that player”.
I think they placed even greater emphasis on that this year for obvious reasons, but it also helped that it aligned with some legitimately good prospects, from Devin Bush in the first round all the way to Maryland tackle Derwin Gray, who was a cornerstone of their program.
As was Benny Snell. And Diontae Johnson. And Sutton Smith. You get the idea. These are players that, on paper, all received high marks for both their football and their personal character, and which they hope will help to contribute to a strong and healthy locker room culture, conducive to success on the field as well.