For the Steelers, a draft steeped in physicality and family

·5 min read

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Omar Khan spent more than 20 years in the Pittsburgh Steelers' front office before being promoted to general manager last spring. He waited another 11 months before getting a chance to call the shots during the NFL draft.

No wonder he seemed in a rush to make up for lost time.

Khan's inaugural run through the draft included a little bit of everything. He traded up in the first round to grab powerhouse left tackle Broderick Jones. He brought cornerback Joey Porter Jr. — the son of former Steelers linebacker and assistant coach Joey Porter Sr. — back home in the second.

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In the third, he took a flyer on massive tight end Darnell Washington. In the fourth, he reunited outside linebacker Nick Herbig with older brother Nate, a veteran guard who signed with Pittsburgh in free agency last month.

Needing someone to protect quarterback Kenny Pickett's blind side for the next half-decade or more, Khan called up longtime rival New England and swapped picks to make sure the talented and still remarkably young Jones with the 14th overall pick. Then he held on to the first pick of the second round to return Porter — considered a first-round pick by many — to the city where he grew up while giving a second in need of young talent a potentially significant boost.

Not bad for a guy who said he wouldn't stray too far from the formula that has kept the Steelers competitive for the vast majority of the last 50 years. The pick swap with the Patriots was shrewd, and he got back the fourth-round selection he gave to New England when he traded down in the third round, a move that didn't stop him from landing the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Washington.

“I don’t know if I’d call myself aggressive,” Khan said. “I’m just trying to win a Super Bowl. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Pittsburgh hasn't won a playoff game since 2016 and needed a second-half surge to finish 9-8 and avoid its first losing season since 2003. Khan and head coach Mike Tomlin have spent the last six weeks attacking areas of weakness, shoring up the offensive and defensive line and the secondary in both free agency and the draft, wrapping up the weekend by taking 6-3 cornerback Cory Trice Jr. and 6-5, 305-pound guard Spencer Anderson in the seventh.

They also tipped their hand about how they plan to compete in what could become a very crowded playoff picture in the AFC.

“As far as we look at it, the games are won by the bigs,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said after Pittsburgh drafted 6-4, 310-pound defensive tackle Keeanu Benton from Wisconsin.

And the Steelers got big — or in the case of Washington, very big — over the course of three eventful days.

“I don’t know if size per se was a point of emphasis, but obviously we value physicality and those are capable of playing a brand of football that we value,” Tomlin said.

Jones morphed from a freshman who got whipped in drills during his early days at Georgia to an athletic tactician who started on a team that won back-to-back national championships. Jones, who doesn't turn 22 until May 16, sees similarities in how the Bulldogs and the Steelers go about things.

“Nobody plays as physical as us (at Georgia),” Jones said. “Nobody was running the ball like us. Nobody was taking shots down the field like us. You’ve just got to be able to play dominant.”

Asked what he made of his new teammates, Jones called Pickett and third-year running back Najee Harris “dogs.” Benton, who figures to get the chance to learn behind veterans Cam Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi, had another description in mind.

“(Tomlin) wants goons out there and he wants somebody to come out there who’s not afraid to get their nose dirty,” Benton said.

That may be the only way Pittsburgh can compete in an AFC North that features Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow, DeShaun Watson, Joe Mixon, Nick Chubb and JaMarr Chase, among others.

The Steelers lack the offensive firepower — at least at the moment — to light up scoreboards the way Burrow does in Cincinnati and Jackson does (at least when he's not playing Pittsburgh) in Baltimore.

While Pickett showed serious signs of promise late in the season, particularly after engineering back-to-back winning drives to keep the Steelers in the playoff hunt all the way to Week 18, Pittsburgh appears poised to rely on running the ball and being a bully on defense.

Having star outside linebacker T.J. Watt — who missed seven games with a torn left pectoral — healthy for a full season would help. So would having the lanky 6-2 Porter step into a starting role.

Porter grew up in Pittsburgh while his dad played and coached for the Steelers. A quarter century after Pittsburgh drafted Joey Porter Sr. in the third round, the club selected Porter's son in the second. While the younger Porter stresses he plans to bring his own “flavor” to his hometown, he's well-versed in what it takes to succeed when you walk by six Lombardi Trophies on your way to work every day.

“We’re going to smack you in the mouth,” Porter said. "We’re going to play aggressive and I feel like that fits my game style. I’m going to get in your face, I’m going to talk a little trash, but we’re going to play."


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Will Graves, The Associated Press