Draft Bored | Left Field | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Draft Bored

Steelers picks a less-than-inspiring bunch

Just when I thought it was safe to turn on ESPN, the "worldwide leader" broadcast the Brady Quinn Telethon -- I mean, the 2007 NFL draft. And just when I thought the Cleveland Browns had learned something about building a successful team (by picking über-tackle Joe Thomas from Wisconsin with their No. 3 pick), they gave up this year's second-round pick, and next year's first-round pick, to the Cowboys to get Notre dame's quarterback Quinn at No. 22.

But just when I thought it was safe to make fun of the Browns again, the Steelers used their third-round pick to get a tight end, Matt Spaeth from Minnesota.

We know by now that draft-day chatter is often wrong, and even smart GMs make mistakes. Willie Parker and Tom Brady were largely ignored by the draftniks, yet nobody would question their value today. Sometimes a second-round linebacker turns into Joey Porter; other times he turns into Alonzo Jackson.

But in the waning moments of Day 1, most draft analysts gave the Browns high marks for their Quinn maneuvering. Maybe they should print T-shirts and caps for Cleveland fans dreaming of championship gear: Cleveland Browns 2007 NFL Draft Champions.

But I kid Browns fans. They have something to be excited about, at least for now. Which is more than you can say for much of Steelers Nation. After picking linebackers in the first two rounds, the Steelers went with Spaeth and in round four, a punter, Daniel Sepulveda of Baylor.

The NFL draft is the weekend that GMs and coaches dust off the cliché about picking "the best athlete available." That might be the only explanation for the Steelers picking a tight end so early. Spaeth's size is touted as his best asset, so if nothing else, he may endear himself to fans by shadowing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to protect him from car accidents, splenectomies and the like. (Given last year's off-season, it's amazing Ben's not on the waiting list for a kidney, or suffering from a severe case of shingles, by now.) Still, it's hard to imagine there were no running backs or offensive linemen ranked anywhere near the enormous Minnesotan on the Steelers' draft board.

This is nothing against Spaeth; the cold fact is he's gone to purgatory for tight ends. To paraphrase draft seer Mel Kiper Jr., I'm not sure if the Steelers even understand what a tight end is for.

The team's first-round pick from 2005, Heath Miller, is gifted enough to become one of the elite tight ends in the NFL. According to no less of an expert than Mike Ditka, he's already one of the league's best at blocking. But in his first two years, Miller has caught a total of only 73 passes. Antonio Gates of the Chargers hauled in 160 in that time. In 2005 alone, Baltimore's Todd Heap pulled in 75 from Kyle Boller (speaking of draft-day gaffes ...). In 2006, Heap caught 73 from Steve McNair.

Spaeth seems likely to be just another in a long line of blockers ... unless new coach Mike Tomlin is planning to break with precedent.

Draft analysis may be about as accurate as daily horoscopes, but a team's picks can suggest something about the tone a coach hopes to set. Maybe Tomlin will actually use his young, physical tight ends as pass-catchers, providing safety outlets for Roethlisberger.

As to the remainder of the draft, there was a deafening hue and cry about the Steelers' decision to trade up and get a punter in the fourth round. But the position is one of major concern, and at least Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert put their pick where their mouths were. Everybody -- and by "everybody," I mean me -- loves to complain about special teams, but nobody wants to use a high pick to improve them. Mike Tomlin has laid his cards down: Special teams cannot cost the Steelers anymore games.

Still, after parsing this draft, it looks like the Tomlin era may be marked by a strategy of trying to get a couple field goals early, then using the defense and new punter to hold the lead. As a friend of mine said, we'll be the New Jersey Devils of the NFL.


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