On Monday morning, Pittsburgh Steelers GM Omar Khan and HC Mike Tomlin spoke to the media in their annual pre-draft press conference. Aired live on the team’s YouTube channel, they talked about the team’s moves this offseason and previewed the upcoming 2023 NFL Draft.
When Tomlin was asked about players in the draft, like Penn State CB Joey Porter Jr., whom he and the organization had a good knowledge of prior to the pre-draft process. Tomlin said evaluating prospects he already knows well is more a storyline for the media than it is a factor in his evaluation.
“There’s guys in every draft, particularly for me in recent years, that I have similar background with,” Tomlin said. “Maybe they’re Pittsburgh guys, maybe they’re in a similar age group as my sons. You know, the Skyy Moore discussion a year ago. [Damar Hamlin] and the guys that play next door. All the 412s. Because I’ve been a part of this community so long, I’ve essentially watched those generation of guys grow up. I’ve seen ’em play little league football. I’ve seen him play high school football. I’ve probably met ’em at some point during their development because guys like me meet talented young athletes.”
Tomlin has been the Steelers’ head coach since 2007, captaining the ship in Pittsburgh for 16 seasons. During that time, he has had the opportunity to coach many great football players like Joey Porter Sr., whose son, Joey Porter Jr., is one of the top CB prospects in the draft class. Tomlin is well-acquainted with Porter Jr. The latter grew up around the Steelers’ practice field and locker room and played high school with Dino Tomlin.
During the pre-draft cycle last year, many were attracted to Western Michigan WR Skyy Moore as a potential fit for the Steelers since he played his prep ball in the area and had a previous relationship with Tomlin. The same could be said in 2021 for Bills S Damar Hamlin, who got to know Tomlin well during his time at Pitt before heading to upstate New York to play in Buffalo.
“And so, it’s not as unique as you would like to make it,” Tomlin said. “I’m sure you are going to make it, but man, there’s a handful of those guys for a variety of reasons, particularly in recent years as I mentioned, that that kind of make that less relevant and less significant story from my perspective.”
Tomlin appears to downplay his connections to prospects coming from the area, stating that he has met numerous talented players during his tenure as the Steelers’ head coach. However, there is no denying Tomlin and the Steelers’ history of targeting players due to previous connections.
The team made QB Kenny Pickett its selection at #20 overall last year, stating that the familiarity with him being so close to home and knowing him inside and out played a big factor in making him their first choice in the 2022 draft. The same could be said with drafting TE Connor Heyward year and selecting Pitt RB James Conner in 2017, having that extensive background information on him due to being a local guy.
Could Pittsburgh’s interest in Joey Porter Jr. be all a smokescreen due to the obvious connections? Possibly, but given the Steelers’ draft history, they don’t play games and are clear regarding their interest in players. Should Porter be on the board at #17 overall Thursday night, I find it extremely difficult to see Tomlin and the Steelers passing on him unless another player of incredible value falls into their lap.