Pittsburgh Steelers: Kevin Colbert

PITTSBURGH -- Steelers players from multiple eras -- including this one -- attended Chuck Noll's funeral on Tuesday morning in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

[+] EnlargeRoger Goodell, Mel Blount
John Heller/AP PhotoNFL commisioner Roger Goodell and former Steelers CB Mel Blount embrace before Tuesday's funeral service for Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh.
Former Steelers greats such as Joe Greene, Franco Harris and John Stallworth were there. So were current players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and Ike Taylor.

Commissioner Roger Goodell represented the NFL at the service that lasted just over an hour and turned out to be the simple goodbye that Noll, who passed away Friday at the age of 82, would have wanted.

Make that demanded.

Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin also attended the funeral with Rooney II, the Steelers' president, joining Greene as one of the pallbearers.

No players spoke at the service but a handful of them talked afterward about what Noll meant to them and his legacy:

Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene played for the Steelers from 1969-81 and was Noll's first-ever draft pick.

"I used to be very, very bad-tempered with officials and Chuck said, ‘You know Joe, those guys have families and kids and they probably don't like you talking to them like that,' and I stopped doing it. He just had a way of sharing information with you that was long lasting. There's not many days that go by when I don't think back on something that Charles Henry Noll said. Anytime I was around Chuck it was a learning experience. Just an outstanding person."

Offensive tackle Jon Kolb played for the Steelers from 1969-81 and then coached under Noll with the Steelers from 1982-91.

"I got to coach with him also for 10 years and he made the point to coaches that the game is about the players. We're here to help the players prepare. That was what he wanted to do and I believe just from the talks I had with him, he didn't just want to prepare for the moment and the season but preparation for life, which is not the norm."

[+] EnlargeJohn Banaszak
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoJohn Banaszak recalls the opportunity Chuck Noll provided for him as a Steelers' defensive lineman.
John Banaszak played defensive tackle and defensive end for the Steelers from 1975-81.

"I was an undrafted rookie free agent and there were 17 draft choices in front of me, but Chuck gave me an opportunity and a chance to make that football team and I took advantage of it. I think whether or not I would have played seven years or I would have been (cut) two weeks into (his first) training camp he would have had a very big impact on me anyway. I learned that whether you're in business or you're a football coach or a football player, fundamentals are the essential parts of being successful. He stressed that regularly."

Tight end Mike Mularkey played for the Steelers from 1989-91 and coaches tight ends for the Tennessee Titans.

"You like to be around guys that like playing football and want to do it the right way. That's all he ever asked of his players, and I just told that to my guys in my (meeting) room this past week. He's the best coach I was fortunate to play for but I've gotten more from Chuck off the field about how to do things the right way. Family was important and a balance in life was important, and he showed that every day in his life. I hate to be here under these circumstances but I'm glad I got a chance to be here."

• Read more: A collection of memories from Steelers who played for or coached with Noll.
PITTSBURGH -- The tears that made it hard for Maurkice Pouncey to talk Thursday afternoon also cut short what should have been a celebratory news conference.

Emotion choked the Pittsburgh Steelers center, and it emanated from the day last September when a teammate crashed into his right knee and left Pouncey in the kind of pain that made him wonder if he would ever walk well enough to play football again -- or at least at a high level.

What also had to overwhelm Pouncey: Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, team president Art Rooney II, general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin all attended the official announcement of the five-year contract extension he signed nine months after tearing several ligaments in his right knee, including his ACL.

[+] EnlargeMaurkice Pouncey
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesMaurkice Pouncey is the only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.
Their presence as much as the new deal that could be worth as much as $44 million, affirmed to Pouncey that he is a Steeler.

And there is a difference between that and playing for the Steelers.

“It’s true love here,” Pouncey said shortly after the Steelers concluded organized team activities. “I’ll do anything for this team and I’m ready to lead us to where we’ve got to get back to.”

The Steelers concluded that Pouncey is one of the keys to them re-establishing themselves as perennial Super Bowl contenders following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

They made a bold move with the contract that is now the most lucrative for a center in the NFL.

They also made the correct move in locking up Pouncey long-term after the Jaguars had raised the ante at the position by signing Alex Mack to a five-year, $42 million contract (the Browns later matched it to retain Mack).

Pouncey is the only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. His teammates respect him so much that they voted Pouncey a captain last season, not much more than a month after he had celebrated his 24th birthday. And Pouncey is the kind of player you build around on the offensive line, especially if your goal is to maximize Ben Roethlisberger's remaining seasons as a top-tier quarterback, something that Colbert has stated.

Questions have been raised about Pouncey and whether the 2010 first-round pick is prone to injury. But he had missed just three regular-season games prior to 2013.

And the injuries he suffered in the Steelers’ season opener were a result of nothing more than rotten luck, as friendly fire took Pouncey out after right guard David DeCastro whiffed on an attempted cut block.

The Steelers are obviously comfortable with Pouncey’s injury history as well as where he is from a health standpoint nine months after hurting his right knee. Pouncey’s teammates, meanwhile, were nothing short of ecstatic about his new deal.

And not because Pouncey is likely to pick up the next couple of dinner tabs.

“He worked his butt off so we’re glad to have the team commit to him like that,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said. “We’re more excited than he is about it.”

Just not as emotional.

“I was just telling coach (Tomlin) it seems like five years all over again, and I’m ready to start this path and help this team get back to where we need to,” said Pouncey, who turns 25 the day before the Steelers report to training camp. “This is really an awesome feeling and words can’t really say enough about it.”
PITTSBURGH -- The journey that led Shaquille Richardson to the practice fields he stepped onto Friday, the first day of Pittsburgh Steelers' rookie minicamp, started years ago on the other side of the country.

An unheralded recruit in Los Angeles, Richardson caught then-UCLA assistant coach Carnell Lake's eye at a summer camp with the way he stuck to wide receivers like paparazzi. On Lake's recommendation, the Bruins brought Richardson back for another camp.

[+] EnlargeShaquille Richardson
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsThe Steelers are banking on fifth-round draft pick Shaquille Richardson to help out Pittsburgh's secondary in the 2014 season.
"He came in and was the best cover guy we had," Lake said. "We offered him a scholarship the next day."

Richardson signed with UCLA in 2009, but neither he nor Lake stuck around Westwood -- though both for different reasons.

Their football paths have finally crossed again and this much is certain: the Steelers need their defensive backs coach to nurture the talent that he was one of the first to discern.

Richardson will receive more scrutiny than any fifth-round draft choice should, in large part because he is the only cornerback the Steelers drafted this year. The Steelers were expected to select a cornerback early in the draft and take two of them, something they have twice done since 2009.

They waited until the draft's third day to take the Arizona product. And the Steelers drafted Richardson in the same round that they selected Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne last year.

Hawthorne didn't make it out of training camp, and he was the only draft pick the Steelers gave up on after preseason practice.

They better have done a better job of evaluating Richardson given their lack of depth at cornerback and need to get younger at the position.

"He’s definitely a good prospect that’s got the measurables that you’re looking for," Arizona defensive backs coach David Lockwood said of Richardson. "He’s a smart player. He picks up things fast and he has some cover skills, which of course you need at that level."

Richardson started 37 of 49 games at Arizona and recorded 189 career tackles while intercepting 10 passes and breaking up 30 of them.

The 6-1, 194-pounder has good size, and he runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.5 seconds range, which Lake said, "is fast enough, especially if he is a good technician."

Lake never got to work with Richardson on the finer points of playing cornerback.

Richardson was arrested (along with three others) for felony theft before his freshman season -- charges were later dropped -- and he transferred to Arizona. Lake left the Bruins' coaching staff after the 2009 season to spend more time with his family, but he kept an eye on Richardson. The Steelers hired Lake in March 2011 to coach the defensive backs.

Lockwood, meanwhile, said Richardson never had any off-the-field issues the two seasons the two were together at Arizona.

"He’s got a good personality and you can hold a conversation with him," Lockwood said. "He likes to have fun and joke around, but when it’s time to work you go to work."

The Steelers hosted Richardson for a pre-draft visit last month, and Lake said he was "instantly likeable."

The Steelers liked Richardson enough that they were content to wait until the fifth round to select a cornerback and hope Richardson was still available.

"I did get a good vibe from coach Lake when I was there," Richardson said of his visit. "I'm so happy to be back under him, learn from him and be a Pittsburgh Steeler."

The Steelers are counting on Richardson -- and Lake -- for that to be the case for a long time.

"Shaquille Richardson has the prototypical size you want in a starter-capable corner," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "He's fast, he's athletic. He's got a chance."
PITTSBURGH -- Kent State coach Paul Haynes and Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey shared a memory -- and a laugh -- recently when they recalled Dri Archer's 100-yard kickoff return for a Kent State touchdown last season in a game between the Mid-American Conference rivals.

"Dri went down his sideline and [Carey] said he was going so fast and he was just thinking, ‘We are so stupid for kicking to this guy,'" Haynes said. "They were the only team that kicked deep to us. Everybody else pooched."

That anecdote neatly distills why the Pittsburgh Steelers were enamored enough with Archer’s breathtaking speed and big-play ability to draft him in the third round -- yet also why taking him that high might be a luxury they couldn't afford after consecutive 8-8 seasons.

[+] EnlargeDri Archer
AP Photo/G.M. AndrewsThe Steelers hope Kent State's
Dri Archer can cause matchup problems for opposing defenses.
Archer already had been compared to former great kick returners such as Mel Gray and Gerald "Ice Cube" McNeil, and that was just in the Steelers' building.

But since NFL kickers have been able to boom the ball out of the end zone with regularity since kickoffs were moved to the 35-yard line, how much of a weapon will Archer be if teams simply decide to play keep-away?

That is what teams did last season when Archer managed just two kickoff returns for 128 yards and a touchdown. Haynes said Kent State didn’t even bother practicing kickoff returns once it became apparent that opposing teams weren’t going to let Archer beat them in that phase of the game.

Despite his limited opportunities last season, the Steelers placed a premium on Archer as a return man during their pre-draft evaluation of him.

"In my mind, return guys are starters," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "His kick-return ability is unique. It really is special. Whatever he can add to us offensively, we see some value there."

Where exactly the 5-foot-8, 173-pound Archer fits into the offense remains to be seen. The Steelers feature Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown, and they have an emerging running back (Le'Veon Bell) and a bruising back (newly signed LeGarrette Blount).

"This is a guy that is going to create some unique opportunities for us from a package standpoint in terms of him getting identified," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Is he a running back? Is he a wideout? Regardless of position, I think he’s a playmaker. He's a guy that gets yards in chunks and rings up the scoreboard."

Such talk sounds great in May, but how will it translate in actual games when there are a limited number of snaps and Archer is not a primary option at running back or wide receiver?

"We are all going to work together to make sure this guy is in the right place," running backs coach James Saxon said. "The kid is a special football player with the ball in his hands."

Indeed, Archer rushed for 1,429 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior, leading the country with 8.99 yards per carry. His rushing totals plummeted to 527 yards last season, but much of that can be attributed to the fact that Kent State played him extensively at wide receiver to showcase his versatility to NFL teams.

"I think one of the biggest mistakes we made here is flexing him out," Haynes said. "We needed to keep him at running back just because we could have gotten him more touches. He has great vision, he has great feet, he has great burst -- all the things a good running back needs to be."

That includes strength and toughness.

It is easy to fixate on Archer’s size and speed and label him a gimmick player, but that evaluation doesn't fit. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.26 seconds) at the NFL scouting combine in February, but Archer also bench-pressed 225 pounds 20 times.

That's only seven shy of the combine bench-press total for defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, the 6-7, 352-pounder the Steelers drafted in the sixth round.

Haynes said Archer is strong and thick enough to absorb a pounding in the NFL, and Tomlin said, “He is not small. He is short.”

It remains to be seen how many touches Archer will get in an offense that returns all but one starter from last season.

Bell averaged 17.2 carries per game in 2013, and he is a legitimate feature back because of his pass-catching abilities. The Steelers also have to find carries for Blount, who as recently as January bulled his way to 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns while leading the Patriots to a playoff victory.

That leaves Archer as a situational player, albeit a unique one, and the Steelers didn’t get favorable results the last time they drafted a ridiculously fast player with plans to use his speed to exploit mismatches.

Chris Rainey, even before he fell out of favor in Pittsburgh because of off-field incidents, didn’t make much of an impact on the offense. In 2012, his only season with the Steelers, the former Florida speedster rushed for 102 yards on 26 carries and caught 14 passes for a mere 60 yards.

There might turn out to be no comparison between Archer and Rainey aside from sheer speed. And one thing Archer won’t have a problem with, Haynes said, is representing the Steelers -- on the field and away from it.

"You think of toughness, you think hard-nose, you think of discipline," Haynes said of the Steelers. "That’s why I think Dri is going to fit in so well there, because a lot of those things are how I would describe him. Besides the football, he’s going to be a great ambassador for that program.

"You don’t have to worry about him off the field. He’s going to work, he’ll study the game, he’ll surround himself with the great pros that are already there and teach him how to be a great pro himself."
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers went into the NFL draft with Lawrence Timmons and a lot of question marks at inside linebacker.

Now it might be one of the deepest positions on the team.

If Ryan Shazier is as good as advertised -- and it says here that the former Ohio State star will be another first-round hit for the Steelers -- he and Timmons fill form one of the better inside linebacker tandems in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Steelers selected Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier with the 15th overall pick in the first round.
Vince Williams, who started 11 games last season as a rookie, provides quality depth. Undrafted free agent Terence Garvin, who played 15 games last season before hurting his knee, also returns, and he shined on special teams in 2013 while also logging some snaps on passing downs.

The Steelers added more depth at inside linebacker on the third day of the draft when they picked UCLA's Jordan Zumwalt in the sixth round.

“Great competition at inside linebacker,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said, “we are going to have some.”

Sean Spence could also be part of the competition when the Steelers open training camp in late July.

Spence, who suffered a career-threatening knee injury in the Steelers' final preseason game in 2012, has made remarkable progress. The former third-round pick has been working with his teammates in the Steelers' offseason program after receiving medical clearance from the team doctors.

“He looks real good to me,” Butler said. “It's getting really close to being miraculous.”

Spence shredded his knee in his final preseason game as a rookie as he tore several ligaments and also suffered nerve damage. It is still too early to tell how much the Miami (Fla.) product will be able to contribute to the Steelers, especially since his game was predicated on speed.

But Spence will be a player to watch during the offseason practices, which start at the end of the month and conclude with a mandatory minicamp in the middle of June.

“We will see how the knee holds up when he starts hitting and things like that,” Butler said. “He is such an exceptional young man and you hope that it works out for him, and I think it will.”

If that happens it will be quite a bonus for the Steelers, who would further bolster themselves at inside linebacker if Spence is able to play again.

“In the coaching sessions that he's been able to take part in he looks great, he looks healthy,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “We hope to have him in the mix. We can never have enough good players at any one position.”
PITTSBURGH -- Would the Steelers have taken a cornerback in the first round of the NFL draft had either Justin Gilbert or Kyle Fuller -- or both -- been available at No. 15?

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert isn’t saying.

“Sure, there were guys that went ahead of Ryan that were really good players,” Colbert said Monday on TribLive radio. “We were extremely excited [Shazier] was there but there were other players that we would have entertained and maybe didn’t have an opportunity to pick them. But that doesn’t diminish our excitement for Shazier.”

The Steelers really liked tight end Eric Ebron, and the North Carolina product certainly would have been prominent in the discussion that preceded the Steelers' first-round pick had he still been available.

But the Steelers were more than happy to select Shazier, who provides speed, athleticism and versatility to their defense.

The Steelers only took one cornerback in the draft but Colbert echoed comments made by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau that the position is not as lacking as has been widely perceived.

"Cortez Allen we think has a real bright future and he should only get better," Colbert said. "When you’ve got a guy like William Gay and Brice McCain and Antwon Blake and we feel nice about what they’re going to be able to contribute. Blake did a great job coming in [last season] and playing mainly on special teams because he was a late addition for us but he’s going to have a whole offseason to grow as a corner.”

Despite taking only one cornerback -- and waiting until the fifth round to select Arizona’s Shaquille Richardson -- the Steelers have generally gotten good reviews for their draft.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. gave the Steelers an A-minus for their draft. ESPN analyst Todd McShay also liked what the Steelers accomplished during the three-day draft.

"I was really impressed. I thought they had one of the better drafts of all the teams in the league," McShay said Monday during a post-draft conference call. "I really thought beginning to end that Pittsburgh did a really good job of finding players that fit their system and do multiple things.”
PITTSBURGH -- Count Mel Kiper Jr. among those who think the Steelers hit it big in a draft they had to get right.

The Steelers were one of just five teams that received an "A" grade from the ESPN analyst following the NFL draft, one in which Pittsburgh made nine picks.

Kiper gave the Steelers an "A-minus"Insider for their draft haul and the only thing he questioned is why they didn’t add more reinforcements at cornerback.

“Did they do enough at cornerback? Maybe not,” Kiper wrote. “But they got everything else right.”

Such praise emanates from the Steelers' top two picks, linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Shazier adds speeds to the Steelers’ defense and should make an immediate impact. Kiper wrote that Tuitt is a “stud” who is a perfect fit on a defensive line that needed help.

As for cornerback, here is what general manager Kevin Colbert said on why the Steelers only picked one and waited until the fifth round to take Arizona’s Shaquille Richardson: “The way [the draft] broke, any player that we took really we were happy to get them where we got them. We weren’t going to reach for any position that we didn’t feel comfortable with. You knew a guy like Shaquille Richardson was probably going to be available in the fourth or fifth round. You just hoped he was going to be there and fortunate for us he was."

Time will ultimately tell whether the Steelers did enough to help themselves at cornerback and whether Kiper’s glowing assessment of their draft is correct.

Remember, none of the players drafted have played a down in the NFL and we probably won’t know for three years how well the Steelers did.

But I agree with Kiper that, at first blush, it looks like the Steelers had a really good draft.

“If you look at the men that we had an opportunity to select, their size, their speed, their versatility, obviously those are things we value,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We buy into the upside of these young men and we look forward to getting down to business and working with them.”
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

PITTSBURGH -- A wrap-up of the Pittsburgh Steelers' draft. Click here for a full list of Steelers draftees.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIThe Steelers expect big things from Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt.
Best move: Taking Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt in the second round. The Steelers had no bigger need than at defensive end, and they were smart to pounce on Tuitt, who had been widely projected to go late in the first round. The 6-foot-5, 303-pounder has the ideal build for a five-technique defensive end, and he also has the pass-rushing skills to move inside when the Steelers go to their nickel package. Tuitt had 21 career sacks at Notre Dame, and the Steelers are convinced his play slipped last season because recovery from double-hernia surgery compromised his training and caused him to put on too much weight. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said Tuitt is back to his 2012 playing weight when he dominated for the Fighting Irish, and they expect him to play significantly as a rookie if not start at some point in 2014.

Riskiest move: The Steelers took just one defensive back in the draft and they didn’t select cornerback Shaquille Richardson of Arizona until the fifth round. That won’t do anything to allay the anxiety of Steelers’ fans about the state of the secondary and specifically cornerback where Ike Taylor isn’t getting younger and where there isn’t much depth. Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said he is confident free-agent signee Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, who played almost exclusively on special teams last season, can be key contributors this season. They better be since the draft didn’t deliver the reinforcements at cornerback that most thought it would.

Most surprising move: The Steelers bypassed a cornerback and wide receiver in the third round to take speedy but diminutive running back Dri Archer. This looks like a luxury pick since the Steelers had more pressing needs when they selected the 5-8, 173-pounder. Archer ran the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.26 seconds) at the NFL combine, and the Steelers plan to carve out a role for him in the offense. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has compared Archer to Darren Sproles because of his explosiveness and versatility. Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann said Archer reminds him of former Browns scatback/receiver Gerald “Ice Cube” McNeil. “He’s not small,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s short.”

File it away: First-round pick Ryan Shazier will be an immediate difference-maker as a rookie -- and will make multiple Pro Bowls if he stays healthy. His speed is such that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has said he envisions playing Shazier all over the field. Lake said he will gladly take Shazier as a safety if linebackers coach Keith Butler doesn’t want him. Butler, when told that, smiled and said “I’m not in favor of doing that. Shazier can make mistakes and has make-up speed to get back into position and make plays.” Butler scoffs at the notion that the 6-1, 237-pound Shazier is undersized for an inside linebacker at this level. Butler said former Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior played between 225 and 230 pounds in the latter part of his carer, including 2010 when he made the Pro Bowl. “A lot of times young linebackers get in their head, ‘I have to weigh 250 or I have to weigh 260 [pounds] but can they move? Can they get where they need to be when they need to be there? This guy can do that.”
PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Shazier posed with a No. 50 Steelers jersey presented to him by team president Art Rooney II Friday afternoon.

There was a potential problem and it had nothing to do with the shirt per se that Shazier and Rooney held up as photographers snapped pictures in the Steelers’ media room.

The No. 50, however, previously belonged to former Steelers linebacker Larry Foote.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteRyan Shazier started at Ohio State as a true freshman. Will he impress the Steelers enough this summer to start as a rookie?
Foote played his college ball at Michigan and Shazier is an Ohio State product.

The question, asked in a light vein, of whether he was OK taking a number that had been worn by a Michigan man left Shazier a tad flustered.

But what emerged from his latest stop in what has been a whirlwind since the Steelers made him the 15th overall pick of the draft is that Shazier has long been comfortable in whatever he is wearing.

That is especially true of his own skin.

Shazier overcame childhood taunts while growing up in South Florida, and he continues to have the last laugh over those who teased him when Alopecia, a condition in which the immune system attacks hair follicles, robbed him of his hair.

“I was probably the only little kid walking around with a bald head,” Shazier said. “It was tough because kids are mean. I just embraced it. I feel like if you didn’t like me for who I am, it’s a problem with you. I feel like it’s my signature now. I love having Alopecia. Having a bald head actually saves me a lot of money.”

Shazier will cost the Steelers a few bucks, especially if he comes anywhere close to living up the effusive praise that general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin lavished on him Thursday night.

Reaction to the Steelers picking Shazier has been mixed at best, and it has little to do with the player who piled up 143 tackles, including 22 for losses, and six sacks in 2013 and is only 21 years old.

Many fans wanted the Steelers to take a cornerback or wide receiver in the first round. When they went in a different direction some wondered why the Steelers didn’t try to trade down in the first round and still get Shazier.

There actually is a very good reason why the Steelers stayed where they were: the Cowboys were ready to pick Shazier if he made it past the Steelers.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Shazier, UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr, Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin had been targeted by Dallas for its first-round pick.

The Cowboys would have picked between Shazier and Martin but the Steelers did not provide them with that option, and they drafted Martin.

“My dad said that people were hinting to him that the Cowboys were going to draft me with the next pick,” Shazier said. “I’m happy that the Steelers drafted me. I can’t wait to go to Heinz Field and go out there and play in a Steelers jersey.”

The real work for Shazier starts next week when the Steelers hold rookie minicamp.

It will be the first look the Steelers get at Shazier and the rest of the first-year players on the field. And Shazier will be among those who feel utterly lost at times because the 6-foot-1, 237-pounder is learning a new and complex system.

But if Shazier, who played as a true freshman at Ohio State, makes steady progress during offseason practices he will go to training camp with a good chance of winning a starting job.

Such progress will start after his feet touch down and are back firmly planted on the ground.

“It’s just amazing to be in a great city like this with the greatest franchise,” Shazier said of getting drafted by the Steelers. “The plan is to come here and get a seventh [Super Bowl] trophy.”

PITTSBURGH -- The collective groans that echoed off the hills Thursday night in western Pennsylvania were a result of what the Pittsburgh Steelers' brain trust decided when a player who seemed to be a perfect fit -- and would have filled their most glaring need -- was still on the board at No. 15.

The Steelers (gasp!) passed on a physical cornerback who can cover and hit to take an inside linebacker who can run and hit.

It is way too early to tell whether the Steelers erred in bypassing Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard with the 15th overall pick and taking Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier.

But I like the decision because it turned out to be a bold one rather than a safe one. And the Steelers need bold rather than safe after consecutive 8-8 seasons.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteThe Steelers' selection of Ohio State's Ryan Shazier took everyone by surprise -- including the hard-hitting linebacker.
"What we needed is a defensive playmaker," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, "and he fits the bill in that regard."

He does on paper.

Shazier is ridiculously fast -- he said he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds at Ohio State's pro day -- and the 6-1, 237-pounder has the kind of range that general manager Kevin Colbert said is needed to defend against offenses that become more spread out with each passing year.

As glowingly as Colbert and Tomlin spoke of Shazier shortly after they made him the third Ohio State player the Steelers have picked in the first round since 2006, they caught just about everyone off guard with the selection.

That includes Shazier as well as anyone who did a mock draft.

"I didn't see it coming at all," Shazier said during a teleconference with Pittsburgh reporters. "I feel like it's going to be great that I'm in Pittsburgh. I'm happy I'm here."

Steelers fans who were upset by this pick will be too if Shazier helps shore up a run defense that allowed 6.5 rushing yards per carry outside of the tackles in 2013, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And he bolsters the inside pass rush, something Colbert said he will do.

The Steelers will play Shazier at weakside inside linebacker, pairing him with Lawrence Timmons, the player they took when they last had the 15th overall pick in 2007.

They will turn a position that had been suspect into a strength if Shazier is as good as the Steelers think he will be after finishing among Ohio State's career tackles leader.

"This guy can flat-out run," Colbert said. "We're well aware of who we have on our team, but when we can add a player of quality it will override the need at any time. This kid has a unique ability to make plays. We're super excited he was there for us."

The fans might not share Colbert's view, and they surely took note that the Bengals were more than happy to take Dennard after he slipped to them at No. 24.

But it is better for the Steelers to make fans happier in October than in May, and they will do that if Shazier becomes a playmaker in the middle of Pittsburgh's defense.

"Quite frankly the young man's got no holes," Tomlin said.
PITTSBURGH -- Given a chance to lobby for a tall wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took a pass.

"Anything to help this team," Roethlisberger said on 93.7 The Fan when asked who he thinks the Steelers should draft in the first round. "That’s the mindset we all need to be in because 8-8 is not good enough and we need to get back to the playoffs and the Super Bowl. Whatever the higher powers decide can help this team that’s what I’m going for."

General manager Kevin Colbert has said the Steelers plan to maximize Roethlisberger’s remaining years with the team -- Big Ben said earlier this week that he feels like he can play five to seven more seasons -- by surrounding him with talent.

One former Steelers great said the best way to do that is to bolster the unit that protects the Steelers’ franchise quarterback.

"I think in order for Ben to be successful we have to solidify the offensive line," said Pro Football Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson. "We have to get a big-threat receiver and we have to get a running game back."

The Steelers won’t take a running back until the third day of the draft since Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount are poised to get the bulk of the carries in 2014. They could take a wide receiver in the first round, though the position is so deep I think the Steelers wait a little later in the draft before addressing it.

Would the Steelers take an offensive tackle with their first-round pick?

The top three tackles in the class -- Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan -- are unlikely to slip to No. 15 in the draft. But Notre Dame’s Zack Martin could be available there, and he may be one of the safer picks in the draft as teams love his temperament and versatility.

ESPN analyst Todd McShay ranks Martin as the ninth-best player in the draft. He also has five tackles among his 16 highest-rated players in the draft (Virginia’s Morgan Moses is the other one).

It’s hard to see the Steelers using the first-round pick on a tackle given how many other needs they have.

But players they weren’t expecting to be available in past drafts have slipped to them so nothing can be ruled out here.
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger confirmed two things Tuesday during an appearance on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh.

One, the Steelers weren’t expecting to lose wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery to free agency. Two, the Steelers will miss Cotchery, and not just because the seasoned veteran caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes in 2013.

“J Co, along with Heath Miller, was one of the best teammates that I’ve ever played with in any sport,” Roethlisberger said. “I didn’t see us losing him so it made it a little tougher when you’re not expecting someone to go. But he has to do what was best for his family just like everyone else that we’ve lost.”

Cotchery appeared as likely as any of the unrestricted free agents to re-sign with the Steelers after he thrived as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver in 2013.

But the Carolina Panthers offered him a two-year, $5 million contract after their wide receivers corps got raided, and that proved to be more than what the Steelers were willing to pay to keep Cotchery in Pittsburgh.

Shortly after Cotchery joined the Panthers, the Steelers signed former Saints wide receiver Lance Moore to a two-year, $3 million contract.

The Steelers are expected to draft a wide receiver later this week, perhaps as early as the first round.

General manager Kevin Colbert said earlier this week that the Steelers are pleased with what they have been able to accomplish in free agency despite some of the players they have lost.

“We went into the offseason with a specific plan in mind,” Colbert said, “and I think to a large degree that plan unfolded as we expected it to and we were happy with the way it did.”
PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger predicted that the University of Central Florida's Blake Bortles will be the best quarterback to emerge from the 2014 NFL draft class, and he took a wait-and-see approach when it comes to Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel.

Not that Roethlisberger is planning to cede the spotlight to these young quarterbacks or any other ones entering the NFL in the near future.

Roethlisberger, a little more than two months removed from celebrating his 32nd birthday, said retirement is nowhere near the horizon for him, even though he is the third-longest tenured player on the Steelers.

"I feel like I'm in great shape," Roethlisberger said Tuesday on 93.7 The Fan. "I think I can get five, six, seven more years out of this arm and these legs."

Roethlisberger played every snap last season, and the Steelers' extensive use of the no-huddle offense in the second half of 2013 limited the hits he absorbed, as Big Ben generally got rid of the ball quicker.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has said that the organization plans to maximize Roethlisberger's remaining seasons by surrounding the 11th-year veteran with as much talent as possible.

Roethlisberger has two years left on his contract, the same length he had on his rookie deal when the Steelers made him the highest-paid player in franchise history.

Ryan Tollner, Roethlisberger's agent, told ESPN.com recently that he has maintained contact with the Steelers regarding a new contract. Roethlisberger, who signed an eight-year, $102 million contract in 2008, said his only hope is that his next contract allows him to finish his career where it started.

"However that gets done, that's all that matters to me because I bleed black and gold," Roethlisberger said.

Roethlisberger's more immediate focus is on the offseason program that has entered its second phase.

Steelers players were allowed to start working out under the supervision of coaches Tuesday. While they were limited to less than an hour of work with coaches, Roethlisberger said the offense worked on a number of different things, including the no-huddle attack.

The Steelers played at another level after offensive coordinator Todd Haley loosened the reins on the no-huddle attack last season. Roethlisberger is among those who are optimistic that the no-huddle will remain a big part of the offense in 2014.

"I think and I hope that we've all kind of come to the conclusion that maybe we need to do it more," Roethlisberger said. "I think we might go into [practices] using it a lot more so that it is more of a regular thing."
PITTSBURGH -- Sports Illustrated’s Peter King unveiled a most interesting mock draft Tuesday morning, and not just because the veteran NFL writer has the Texans taking Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack No. 1 overall instead of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

King’s mock draft featured a handful of trades, including one between the Steelers and the Eagles. In King’s scenario, LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was still available at No. 15 and the Eagles gave the Steelers a second-round pick to swap spots with them in the first round. The Steelers, in King’s mock, moved down to No. 22 overall and were still able to land Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller.

Such a trade seems like a win-win scenario for each team.

The Eagles need to replace Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson and Beckham is arguably the third-best player at the position that is easily the strongest one in the draft. Athletic and fluid, Beckham has the potential to become a premier route runner, and he can line up all over the field. He would give the Eagles added value as a punt returner, something that Jackson also did well in Philadelphia.

The Steelers, meanwhile, would address a glaring position of need by taking Fuller, who appears to be a good fit for their defense. They would also add a second-round pick in a draft where first-round talent is going to seep into the second round because it is so deep.

Let’s take a closer look at this scenario from the Steelers’ perspective.

General manager Kevin Colbert said on Monday there are 19 players in the draft that the Steelers would be “very happy” taking in the first round.

The Steelers' list presumably doesn’t include any quarterbacks and at least one player from the position will be taken in the top 20. And probably two will go in that range since there are enough teams desperate enough to find a long-term fix at quarterback that they will overdraft one.

There is also a good chance that at least one player will be taken in the middle of the first round who is not among the 19 the Steelers covet with their first pick for whatever reason.

Do the math and it strongly indicates but doesn’t guarantee that the Steelers could move down to No. 22 in the first round and still get one of the players they are targeting.

Colbert said the Steelers won’t consider trading down in the first pick until they are on the clock and they know which players are available at No. 15. If a team like Philadelphia came calling with the offer that King has in his mock draft, it would be a no-brainer for the Steelers to make the trade if there are still enough players on their list of 19 that they get one of them at No. 22.

Or it could be a calculated risk worth taking if there is a good chance the Steelers get one of the players they have targeted in the first round while adding a second-round pick.
PITTSBURGH -- The two extra weeks before the NFL draft this year provided at least one benefit for the Steelers: additional time to sort through a wide receiver class that is as deep as it is talented.

“We had to spend more time on the receivers and the [cornerbacks], especially the receivers because there were so many,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “We kept looking at each other saying, ‘This is really great.’ We have some nice options to us that in years past we haven’t.”

What is really great for the Steelers is that wide receiver and cornerback are among their biggest needs.

Each position could be addressed by the Steelers within the first three rounds of the draft, and because of the depth at wide receiver, they might take a cornerback with their first pick.

The reason is simple arithmetic; there are so many good wide receivers that the Steelers can still get one after the first round, something they’ve had success doing in recent drafts.

“We think that’s a great class,” Colbert said of the wide receivers, “and they come in all shapes and sizes.”

Such variety is only part of the reason why the Steelers have had extensive discussions when ranking the wideouts in the draft.

“The work is so specialized now in college football,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “You’ve got big wideouts, you’ve got small wideouts, you’ve got guys that play exclusively in the slot, you’ve got guys that play exclusively outside. So it generated a lot of opportunity for discussion and forecasting. Obviously, it makes it a little more complex, but it makes it an interesting process.”

Colbert agreed.

“We took a lot of time really sorting through receivers, and it never got boring because there were a lot of exciting players,” he said. “We entered it thinking that and we came away sure [of it], and the corners weren’t far behind them.”

Colbert said the Steelers have pretty much set their draft board, and this week is all about double-checking on players with injury and character concerns and going through different mock draft scenarios.

Colbert said the extra two weeks that teams had to prepare for the draft this year because of a scheduling conflict at Radio City Music Hall didn’t really change the Steelers’ approach. He said the Steelers spread out draft meetings and gave coaches and scouts weekends off to keep everyone fresh and keep everything on schedule.

"We didn’t want to get done too early,” Colbert said, “because I think once you get done too early, you do too much second-guessing.”