Harris: Lackluster drafts costing Steelers

By John Harris
Published: Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Re-signing restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders to a one-year, $2.5 million contract is out of character for the Steelers, and not just because fellow receiver Antonio Brown thinks so.

“I don't think that they really like guys that don't do things their way,” Brown said Friday on Sirius XM NFL Radio, two days before the Steelers matched the New England Patriots' $2.5 million offer to Sanders. “There's a certain professional way that they go about their business, and I don't think that they make decisions with guys that don't go about things in the way that they should. So in my opinion, I don't think he'll come back. It's just not smart to get a guy for one year at a price that you can get a guy for four years.”

Brown was fooled, along with the rest of us. It's a mistake to assume we know how the Steelers operate, because we don't anymore.

These are desperate times for the Steelers, who never engaged in bidding wars for their own players until, apparently, now.

Because of a lack of depth at receiver and repeated misfires in the draft, the Steelers need Sanders.

Agent Jordan Woy tweeted that Sanders is the NFL's first restricted free agent in three years to receive a contract offer.

It makes you wonder why they didn't sign Sanders to a new deal instead of allowing the Patriots to establish the market for the Steelers' own player.

If the Steelers value Sanders so highly, why did they give him a low tender, which would have resulted in them receiving a third-round draft pick instead of a second-round tender? Making New England hand over a second-round pick would have lessened the chances of the Patriots signing Sanders to an offer sheet.

Instead, the Steelers were in the unfamiliar position of overpaying to retain a receiver they had undervalued.

Why the rush to judgment for the Steelers? Bad draft picks forced the team's hand.

Coach Mike Tomlin's first draft in 2007 yielded Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Matt Spaeth and William Gay. None remain from the '08 draft, and only Ziggy Hood and David Johnson remain from '09.

In 2010, which was probably Tomlin's deepest draft, the Steelers plucked Maurkice Pouncey, Brown, Sanders, Jason Worilds, Jonathan Dwyer and Stevenson Sylvester.

It's too early to assess the Steelers' 2011 selections of Cam Heyward, Marcus Gilbert, Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen, Chris Carter and Baron Batch, or 2012 picks David DeCastro, Mike Adams, Sean Spence, Alameda Ta'amu, David Paulson and Kelvin Beachum.

Dave-Te' Thomas of Scouting Services Inc. provides in-depth scouting reports for NFL teams — he recently completed a 200-page report detailing West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith for the Oakland Raiders — and is familiar with the Steelers' draft strategy.

“Pathetic,” Thomas said recently on TribLive Radio.

“Look at last year,” Thomas said. He cited the Steelers' release of 2012 fifth-round pick Chris Rainey after he was charged with simple battery, and Ta'amu, a fourth-round selection who didn't dress for a single game as a rookie, receiving 18 months probation after pleading guilty to reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and drunk driving. “Did anybody ever check character ratings on some of those guys? Look at Rainey. Look at (Ta'amu). Both of those guys had long track records off the field.”

Three draft picks who experienced varied levels of success with the Steelers — Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall and Keenan Lewis — were not retained by the team, despite entering 2013 in the prime of their careers.

Mendenhall was a first-round pick in 2008. Wallace and Lewis were third-round selections in 2009.

Historically, the Steelers have always retained their talented draft picks, particularly talented players younger than 30. Yet, in a surprising turn of events, the Steelers didn't keep Wallace, Lewis or Mendenhall, and didn't mourn their departures.

At the owners meetings last month, Tomlin addressed the issue of the Steelers becoming a tougher football team, both mentally and physically. While he didn't name players, Tomlin emphasized he wants to change the Steelers' culture — one that players said resulted in a “fractured” locker room last season.

“It's more a mentality than anything else,” Tomlin said. “We understand that there is going to be confrontation, and we are not running away from it.”

Re-signing Sanders is a step in the right direction for the Steelers, but not if it compromises their ability to sign draft picks and replenish their talent base.