Harris: WVU’s Bailey a good fit for Steelers
West Virginia receiver Stedman Bailey runs through a drill at the NFL Scouting Combine on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, in Indianapolis.
By John Harris
Updated: Tuesday, March 19, 2013
When Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said “we have to find players via free agency and the draft” Sunday, I assume he was including the receiver position.
Mike Wallace is gone, and we don't know if the New England Patriots really want Emmanuel Sanders or if they're using the threat of signing him to retain some of their own players.
Let's assume Sanders leaves. Even if he stays, the Steelers need another wideout for depth. They also need someone who can stretch the secondary.
Someone such as West Virginia's Stedman Bailey.
I used to think that Bailey's teammate, Tavon Austin, would be perfect for the Steelers. But Austin is similar in size to Antonio Brown, who signed a $42.5 million contract last year.
Austin believes he's the most talented player in this year's NFL Draft. He could be right. He's a faster version of Wes Welker and a product of the same system; both played slot receiver and were coached by Dana Holgorsen in college. Austin likely will be available when the Steelers select with the No. 17 pick next month.
It's difficult to see the Steelers taking a receiver with their first pick when there are holes at linebacker and the offensive line — especially after reports surfaced the Steelers were considering free-agent left tackle Jake Long, who signed with St. Louis.
Bailey — projected to be drafted in the second or third round — makes more sense. He's not as fast as Austin, but he's bigger and is a more complete receiver who does all the little things the Steelers demand from their wideouts. He even dropped his time in the 40-yard dash from 4.52 at the NFL Scouting Combine in February to 4.48 at West Virginia's Pro Day last week.
What makes Bailey such an attractive prospect? He outplayed some of the top cornerbacks in college football and posted eye-popping statistics while playing for a coach with an excellent track record for sending talented receivers to the pros.
“Bailey is the best value pick in the draft, and the best route runner,” said Dave-Te' Thomas, who operates Scouting Services Inc. and provides detailed draft analysis for NFL teams, including the Steelers.
Bailey, who left WVU with a year of eligibility remaining, led the country with 25 touchdowns among his 114 receptions in 2012 — the third-highest total in NCAA FBS history — and broke Michael Crabtree's Big 12 record of 22 touchdown grabs in 2007 (Crabtree, too, was coached by Holgorsen in college). No active college player has reached Bailey's 41 career touchdown grabs.
“Stedman's body control, the smoothness which he runs his routes — his overall feel for the game — is uncanny,” said quarterback Geno Smith, who was Bailey's teammate in college and high school. “It's something you only see on Sundays.”
Bailey diversified his game to include not only receiving skills — he was among three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award — but also his willingness to excel in less glamorous roles as a defender and blocker on special teams.
Bailey led West Virginia with 10 special teams tackles last season (seven solo), recording at least one stop in eight games. He also finished third in the Big 12 with 1,781 all-purpose yards.
“All teams want rookies to come in and play special teams. That's saying a lot about his toughness,” said Tony Fleming, Bailey's Florida-based agent.
Hines Ward became respected as much for his blocking as his receiving skills with the Steelers. Bailey is a Ward clone in that regard.
Bailey made two great blocks to free Austin on a long kickoff return against Texas while matching the speedy Austin stride for stride along the sideline. In a 2011 game against LSU, Bailey viciously rocked cornerback Morris Claiborne twice on the same play. Claiborne became so incensed that he retaliated and received a personal foul.
Bailey burned Claiborne with eight receptions for 115 yards and a 20-yard touchdown. Claiborne was the No. 6 overall selection in the 2012 draft.
Bailey's performance against Oklahoma (13 receptions for 205 yards and four touchdowns) may have convinced Sooners All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin to return for his senior season. Bailey's 13 catches for 303 yards and five touchdowns against Baylor was the best performance in school history and ranks among the best of all time.
Prior to the combine, Fleming hired a receivers coach to prepare Bailey and some of his other clients for what to expect in Indianapolis. It turned out to be new assistant coach Richard Mann before he joined the Steelers.
“It's pretty ironic,” said Bailey, who met with Mann and coach Mike Tomlin following West Virginia's Pro Day. “I felt like the vibe between us was good. He's a down-to-earth, humorous guy who made me laugh. When I worked with Coach Mann, he was searching for a job. Now he's with the Steelers, and I know they need receivers. I'm quite sure he'll remember me.”
Bailey's high level of success in his three years at West Virginia will make him difficult to forget.